Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Guest Blog Series: Can Sustainability Standards Help India Meet the SDGs?

In September, the heads of state of over 190 countries met at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Replacing the Millennium Development Goals, which expired this year, the SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets, aimed at reducing poverty, promoting social development, and protecting the environment on a global scale. Along with other heads of state, Prime Minister Modi declared India’s firm commitment to achieve these goals by 2030. By every measure, the SDGs constitute the most comprehensive and ambitious list of sustainable development goals world leaders have ever committed to.

All eyes are on India
There is no doubt that India will play a key role in the implementation of the SDG agenda. Its sheer size and the magnitude of its development challenge make the country a focal point in this process. India is home to nearly a third of the world’s ‘bottom billion’ and continues to struggle to provide large segments of its population with access to basic public services, such as water, food, healthcare, and education. At the same time, India holds great potential to make progress on these issues. The country is an emerging economic powerhouse that has seen annual average growth rates of 6-8 percent over the last few decades. This year it overtook China as world’s fastest growing large emerging economy. The promotion of economic growth through initiatives like Prime Minister Moodi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign is central to the country’s development strategy. But better mechanisms are needed to reconcile its economic, social, and environmental policy objectives. Whether or not the government will succeed in this will be of crucial importance not only for India but for the entire SDG process.

However, experts and even senior government officials concede that implementing the SDGs in India by 2030 poses a major challenge. Prior to the UN conference in New York, Mrs Sindhushree Khullar, CEO of NITI Aayon, a new government body charged with implementing the SDGs, expressed concerns about the feasibility of the task. According to Khullar, India has already had problems to reach its own more modest sustainable development targets and that, in comparison, the 169 SDG targets marked “a huge jump”.

Can sustainability standards help?
At least since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio in 1992, the private sector has been actively involved in the formulation and implementation of global sustainability goals. One important mechanism is supply-chain-driven sustainability standards. Prominent examples of this approach are the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, or the Better Cotton Initiative. Sponsored by firms and NGOs – often with the support of governments – these programmes harness market forces and corporate power to implement international sustainability targets. Now well-integrated into the regulatory regimes in Europe and North America, they are relatively new to India and other emerging economies.  

While no silver bullet, sustainability standards have the potential to help India tackle its implementation challenge. In particular, they could provide support in three areas in which progress is crucial:

Defining indicators – Only those things that can be measured can be managed. The SDGs define 169 targets, but to work towards these targets concrete indicators are needed. These indicators need to define and operationalize what sustainability means across industries and issue areas. This requires a high level of technical expertise which public regulators often lack. Over the years, sustainability standard systems have developed this expertise for the industries and issue areas they work in. Instead of trying to ‘reinvent wheel’, India should make use of this expertise and enlist appropriate sustainability standards in its regulatory frameworks. In this way, precious time and resources could be saved.

Monitoring and reporting progress Related to the previous point, progress needs to be monitored and reported. Given India’s size and the comprehensiveness of the SDGs, this truly is a mammoth task. But again, sustainability standards could help India meet this challenge. These systems have developed sophisticated monitoring and reporting devices that can track and trace the environmental and social impacts of products and commodities from production to consumption. This is not to say that these systems are perfect and some are better than others, but, used in the right way, they could complement the work of public regulatory agencies.

Creating ownership Finally, sustainability standards are well placed to generate greater ownership for the SDG agenda within the Indian business community and the wider civil sphere. Most standard systems follow an inclusive and transparent governance model and actively encourage participation and stakeholder consultation. Scaled-up through government endorsement, they could serve as vehicles to create larger communities of practice in support of India’s SDG agenda.


These are just three examples through which sustainability standards could help India tackle its implementation challenge. But currently this potential is not realized. Awareness among policy-makers and business leaders in India about sustainability standards and their work remains low. Addressing this knowledge gap could bring India (and the world) a small step closer to achieving the SDGs by 2030.


About the author: 
Philip Schleifer is a Max Weber Fellow at the Global Governance Programme of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His research interests lie in the areas of international political economy, global environmental politics, and transnational private governance. He received his PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics in 2014.

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