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Planetary Integrity

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Abstract

Written by an international team of over sixty experts and drawing on over three thousand scientific studies, this is the first comprehensive global assessment of the political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals, which were launched by the United Nations in 2015. It explores in detail the political steering effects of the Sustainable Development Goals on the UN system and the policies of countries in the Global North and Global South; on institutional integration and policy coherence; and on the ecological integrity and inclusiveness of sustainability policies worldwide. This book is a key resource for scholars, policymakers and activists concerned with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, and those working in political science, international relations and environmental studies. It is one of a series of publications associated with the Earth System Governance Project. For more publications, see www.cambridge.org/earth-system-governance. This title is also available as Open Access on Cambridge Core.
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Planetary Integrity
lead authors
louis j. kotze
´and rakhyun e. kim
contributing authors
peter burdon, louise du toit, lisa-maria glass, prakash kashwan,
diana liverman, francesco s. montesano, salla rantala,
carole-anne se
´nit, se
´bastien treyer and
paola villavicencio calzadilla
The priorities of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development revolve around
people,planetand prosperity. Yet, the precise relationship between these
three concerns remains vaguely defined in the 2030 Agenda, as does the place of
the planetin this plan of action. Implicit in the 17 Sustainable Development
Goals is that we can ensure global prosperity and equality only within a stable
ecological context. Commentators acknowledge that how countries pursue
ecological objectives will directly affect their ability to address the majority of
the Sustainable Development Goals(Vasseur et al. 2017: 732). The Sustainable
Development Goals must therefore, in principle, seek to secure the basis of human
well-being, while maintaining the biophysical capacity of our planet. Although it
remains debatable what this implies in practice, it is reasonable to assume that the
integrity of the earths life-support systems, or planetary integrity in short, must be
maintained for long-term sustainability. Then the following questions arise: To
what extent have the Sustainable Development Goals advanced planetary integrity,
and where can we see positive changes towards planetary integrity in governance
efforts that can be attributed to the global goals?
This is the central question in this chapter. We first offer a brief account of the
concept of planetary integrity as a global public good that is maintained by keeping
the earth system within its ecological limits (Westra, Bosselmann and Gwiazdon
2018). By drawing on an extensive literature survey, we then reflect on a
theoretical debate about the actual and potential role of the Sustainable
Development Goals in advancing planetary integrity; a debate that, while ranging
between optimism and scepticism, is predominantly sceptical about such potential.
Next we provide four examples situated at the international, regional, local and
transnational levels of governance within which the Sustainable Development
Goals aim to steer (see, for a similar approach, Biermann and Kim 2020a). At the
international level we consider key environmental institutions, namely, the United
Nations Environment Assembly and the international regimes on climate change
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and biodiversity, and contrast this perspective with an analysis of the International
Labour Organization, which is not explicitly concerned with environmental
matters. Regionally, we shift our analysis to the European Union and the
Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, which offers
contrasting perspectives from the Global South and Global North on how regional
institutions use the Sustainable Development Goals to pursue planetary integrity.
At the national level, we discuss how South Africa, a hugely diverse country and
an influential political and economic player in Africa, engages with the Sustainable
Development Goals to pursue socio-economic development in the context of
planetary integrity. We then focus on the role of transnational corporations, as
increasingly influential global actors, in employing the Sustainable Development
Goals in their efforts to advance, or hinder, the pursuit of planetary integrity. We
conclude with a summary of our findings, a reflection on theoretical implications,
and suggestions for future research.
We do not claim to cover the entire spectrum of perspectives, or that the
findings from the international, regional, national and transnational examples we
discuss are generalizable. However, we seek to contribute to theory-building on
when and how governance through global goals work (Kanie and Biermann 2017),
and to make policy-relevant recommendations for the second half of the
2030 Agenda and the discussions for the period after 2030.
Conceptualization and Methods
The idea of the Anthropocene suggests that humans are embedded in the earth
system and able to alter its vital functions. Human activities are now being
exercised on a planet that is not passive, but increasingly hostile and unpredictable,
with important consequences for governance and law (Biermann 2014; Kotzé
2020). Our future will be determined as much by the earth system of which we are
an integral part as by our choices and behaviour, which, in turn, are shaped by
grand development visions such as the Sustainable Development Goals (Stengers
2015). Planetary integrity will therefore have to be maintained to sustain all life on
earth. The notion of planetary integrity derives from its root term ecological
integrity, which was initially developed to describe the declining state of
biodiversity on a sub-global scale (Hurley and Tittensor 2020; Westra 2005). In
this context, integrityis a way of thinking about ecological health affected by
human activities (Burdon 2020; Kim and Bosselmann 2015).
The concept of planetary integrity is becoming popular at several levels of
analysis (Parnell 2018). It is, for example, implied in the notion of planetary
boundaries a conceptual framework that seeks to quantify the safe limits outside
of which the Earth system cannot continue to function in a stable, Holocene-like
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state(Rockström et al. 2009: 474; also Steffen et al. 2015). Here, planetary
integrity is used, and has been critiqued (Biermann and Kim 2020b; French and
Kotzé 2021), to describe a safe operating spacebeyond which the earth system
will behave in unpredictable ways, and to describe a threshold for the ability of
ecosystems to support human society (Bridgewater, Kim and Bosselmann 2014).
The boundaries include, among others, those for a safe climate, for protecting
biodiversity, and to avoid serious pollution.
The safe operating space for humanity is, however, getting smaller, at a rate
much faster than initial predictions. Evidence from earth system science shows
unprecedented and accelerating levels of global environmental change and
associated deepening of socio-ecological injustices between and within genera-
tions, which affect humans and non-humans. The signs of decaying planetary
integrity are apparent in terms of epistemic frameworks such as the Anthropocene
and predictions showing that we are fast approaching global tipping points (Lenton
et al. 2020), and possibly even a Sixth Mass Extinction event (Briggs 2017). There
now seems to be general agreement that planetary integrity is being impacted in
unprecedented ways, and that deliberate and thoroughgoing steering mechanisms,
such as through the Sustainable Development Goals, are urgently needed (French
and Kotzé 2018). Yet, have the global goals also advanced planetary integrity, and
where do we see positive changes towards planetary integrity in governance efforts
that can be attributed to the global goals?
This chapter offers a range of perspectives that trace out preliminary answers to
these questions. We conducted a systematic qualitative literature survey using
Scopus. We searched for publications published in English before 2021 that
include the Sustainable Development Goals or the acronym in their title, abstract or
keywords with reference to the environment in conjunction with governance.
1
This
search returned 101 studies, among which we found 15 publications to be
particularly relevant for our chapter. This choice of highly relevant publications
has informed the core findings of our analysis. We then also drew on other sources
that reference, or are referenced by, these publications, which we relied on to
guide, elaborate and substantiate our discussion of the literature we surveyed. Very
few of these publications explicitly discuss the actual or potential steering effects
of the Sustainable Development Goals in relation to planetary integrity, and where
they do, they predominantly focus on the potential instead of the actual steering
effects of the Goals. Concrete empirical analysis of the actual steering effects of the
Sustainable Development Goals in relation to planetary integrity is therefore still
lacking, which points to a clear research gap and the need for future analyses. As a
result of this gap, for present purposes, we complemented this theoretical
discussion with a meta-assessment that draws on grey literature and the
multidisciplinary expertise and perspectives of the authors. These focused
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discussions offer a snapshot of perspectives from the Global South and Global
North, and the multiple complex concerns that lie at the heart of the 2030 Agenda,
including views on the potential and actual environmental steering effects of the
Sustainable Development Goals in varied contexts.
Research Findings and Practical Insights
In this section we present key findings of the literature review on the potential and
limits of the Sustainable Development Goals in steering societies towards
planetary integrity. We understand the steering effects of the Sustainable
Development Goals here through the lens of institutionalism. The Sustainable
Development Goals reflect the interests, ideas and aspirations of differentially
endowed actors (Kashwan, MacLean and García-Lopéz 2019), and they reflect
dynamic settlements (Mahoney and Thelen 2009). As all institutions, the
Sustainable Development Goals are human creations within socio-economic and
political contexts and remain susceptible to continuous manoeuvring by many
actors. In our analysis of the steering effects of the Sustainable Development
Goals, we are therefore sensitive to the configuration of the purposes that the
specific framings and designs of the goals are oriented to serve in the context of
planetary integrity. Our analysis also broadly embraces an understanding of the
types of steering effects as elaborated in Chapter 1. To this end, the assessment
specifically looks at whether and in what ways the Sustainable Development Goals
have led to changes (positive and negative) in relation to how political, economic
and societal actors pursue planetary integrity. We seek to determine whether it is
possible to observe actual or potential policy, legal and broader regulatory
framework (normative) changes; institutional changes such as the creation of new
governance structures; and discursive changes in and of civil society actors.
The Potential for Environmental Steering by the Goals
Several studies refer to the Sustainable Development Goals as an important frame
for sustainable development (e.g., Racioppi et al. 2020). Yet, these studies do not
attribute any primary steering powers to the Sustainable Development Goals, and
the goals are not seen as directly steering behaviour (De Schutter et al. 2019;
Mansourian 2018; Smith et al. 2019). Instead, researchers find rather indirect
steering where Sustainable Development Goals act as orchestrators(Biermann,
Kanie and Kim 2017; Underdal and Kim 2017). One example is when the
Sustainable Development Goals facilitate the clustering of international agreements
or serve as collective headlines(for example, Sustainable Development Goals
14 and 15 for biodiversity). One study concludes that clear lines of sight between
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the SDGs and their impacts are unlikely to emerge. Rather, the SDGs are likely ...
to have a range of messy, contradictory and refractory effects(Hirons
2020: 322).
Several factors might complicate the ability of the Sustainable Development
Goals to have environmental steering effects. For example, environmental targets
under the Sustainable Development Goals often sit in non-environmental goals,
with indicators ending up diluting or contradicting the environmental missionof
the 2030 Agenda as a whole (Elder and Olsen 2019). Some scholars, for example,
have argued that the goals for eradicating poverty or economic growth could result
in environmental degradation (Liverman 2018; Sexsmith and McMichael 2015).
At the same time, most environmental targets under the Sustainable Development
Goals were extracted from earlier agreements, which might draw resistance from
other bodies or agreements in the same area, and even give rise to conflicting
priorities (Elder, Bengtsson and Akenji 2016; Kim 2016). The potential for turf
wars in such a setting is real, as is the lack of ambition of the goals (Kotzé and
French 2018). Such turf wars could limit the steering effect of Sustainable
Development Goals and significantly weaken efforts to pursue ambitious
environmental protection through law, policy and governance. Some commenta-
tors hence argue that the goals may help to highlight environmental protection as a
concern in achieving sustainable development, but that their rationale and content
remains still structurally incompatible with steering towards the more ambitious
goal of planetary integrity (Griggs et al. 2013).
Inherent Design Limitations
Some studies also argue that the Sustainable Development Goals might even have
a negative steering effect on planetary integrity in that they could incentivize
countries to further subordinate environmental priorities in their developmental
plans (Zeng et al. 2020). In other words, doubts about the steering qualities of the
Sustainable Development Goals towards environmental protection arise not only
from their ability to steer, but also from the fact that they do not seem to prioritize
environmental protection in the first place (Craig and Ruhl 2020). The 2030
Agendas explicit inclusion of the planetas one of its main concerns might signal
some focus on a planetary perspective, although the agenda does not refer
explicitly to planetary integrity,ortoplanetary limitsor planetary boundaries
(Elder, Bengtsson and Akenji 2016; Randers et al. 2019). The absence of an
overarching environmental or planetarygoal is remarkable (Brandi 2015), with
environmental protection left to a cluster of environment-focused Sustainable
Development Goals down the list at numbers 13, 14 and 15. While including these
explicit environmental goals might advance environmental protection, some also
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argue that Goals 13, 14 and 15 could compartmentalize environmental issues
(climate, land and oceans) without an overarching SDG on planetary integrity
(Costanza et al. 2015; Kim 2016; Kim and Bosselmann 2015; Young et al. 2017).
Therefore, simply based on a textual analysis of the Sustainable Development
Goals, the goals do not pursue planetary integrity as such, but do recognize the
importance of protecting environmental aspects such as climate, land and
the oceans.
Where environmental protection was integrated into several non-environmental
goals, the Sustainable Development Goals also adopted some conservative and
unambitious perspectives on the tensions between economic growth and
environmental sustainability (Adelman 2018; Eisenmenger et al. 2020; Kotzé
2018). This is evident, for example, in their emphasis on longstanding but dubious
claims about decoupling and resource efficiency as technological solutions to the
environmental crisis (Elder and Olsen 2019; Fletcher and Rammelt 2017).
Governments also rejected as potential core ideas underpinning the Sustainable
Development Goals the more transformative objective of looking beyond gross
domestic product as an indicator of prosperity (Costanza et al. 2015); the notion of
planetary boundaries and the limits this would imply for unrestrained neoliberal
development (Elder and Olsen 2019); and the need for robust implementation
measures, which are currently considered to be not carefully thought out or
systematic(Elder, Bengtsson and Akenji 2016: 6). For example, Gasper, Shah and
Tankha (2019) show that while the emergence of Sustainable Development Goal
12 (to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns) as a stand-alone
goal resulted from pressure by developing countries on industrialized countries, it
was in the end business interests that shaped the targets and indicators under this
goal. This explains why Goal 12 reflects a narrative of sustainable growth, which
some critics consider a business-friendly, neoliberal approach embedded in
sustainable development, and which places much faith in yet-to-be-developed
future technological innovations (Adelman 2018).
Several intergovernmental environmental agencies and civil society groups took
part in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which could have
increased the ambition of these goals towards environmental protection (Sénit
2020). However, the influence of governments and business organizations
prevailed and resulted in unambitious and vague targets of a non-committal
nature (Gasper, Shah and Tankha 2019). Similarly, growth as envisaged in
Sustainable Development Goal 8 is seen to be inherently incompatible with
environmental protection targets, such as those articulated in Goals 6, 13, 14 and
15 (Hickel 2019). Some therefore argue that the Sustainable Development Goals
focus on sustainable economic development is inevitably detrimental to planetary
integrity and justice (Kotzé 2018), which require both limits to economic growth
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and the removal of developmentaldisparities between the rich and the poor
(Kashwan et al. 2020; Lydgate 2012).
A Matter of Window Dressing?
Some studies point to the dangers of cherry picking,window dressingand
greenwashing(e.g., Forestier and Kim 2020). On paper, the 17 Sustainable
Development Goals are unprioritized and all equal (see also Chapter 4 of this
book): The goals are at least in spirit a network of targets(Le Blanc 2015).
However, they do not come as a truly indivisible package, but leave room for
governments to strategically prioritize certain goals in their implementation
(Forestier and Kim 2020). One study claimed that the goals are all characterized
by an absence of any top-down priority setting mechanisms [and] States have the
freedom to pursue (or ignore) the goals however they want(Hirons 2020: 325).
For instance, it has been argued that governments and businesses actively prioritize
the social and economic goals over the environmental goals in both rhetoric and
practice (Craig and Ruhl 2020). Even the 2030 Agenda explicitly says that
environmental threats merely add to and exacerbatethe list of challenges faced
by humanity (UNGA 2015: 5). This ignores evidence that environmental
degradation is caused by a narrow focus on economic growth, and it undermines
the goals of broad-based development that is at once just, fair and equitable and
that can only be achieved in the context of a healthy ecosystem (Adelman 2018).
Studies suggest that instead of promoting a more holistic form of ecologically
friendly development, many governments still prioritize economic growth while
neglecting environmental protection (Custer et al. 2018). Commentators have
shown that among the 169 targets under the Sustainable Development Goals,
environmental targets are often less easily trackable and measurable, and require
larger and more uncertain investments (Craig and Ruhl 2020). As we show below,
the prioritization of non-environmental goals also results from politicalbusiness
cycle dynamics: short-term economic growth and ill-conceived ideas of
development trump longer-term planetary integrity, and then create a vicious
cycle that further subordinates planetary integrity (Kotzé 2018). All this goes to the
heart of concerns about the ontological design and ethical orientation of the
Sustainable Development Goals: their focus seems to remain, as one study argues,
on growth and use of resources ... and [it] departs from an individual, not
collective, point of view; and they remain underpinned by strong (Western)
modernist notions of development: sovereignty of humans over their environment
(anthropocentricism), individualism, competition, freedom (rights rather than
duties), self-interest, belief in the market leading to collective welfare, private
property (protected by legal systems), rewards based on merit, materialism,
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quantification of value, and instrumentalization of labour(van Norren 2020: 453;
see also Liverman 2018).
These insights in the literature lead one to question whether the Sustainable
Development Goals are the appropriate vehicle to pursue planetary integrity.
Some critics argue that the goals are inappropriate for this purpose and show, for
example, that the goals do not acknowledge the centrality of healthy ecosystems to
the optimal functioning of the vast majority of social and economic systems (Kotzé
and French 2018). In other words, the Sustainable Development Goals fail to
recognize that planetary, people and prosperity concerns are all part of one earth
system, and that the protection of planetary integrity should not be a means to an
end, but an end in itself.
Some studies also see the Sustainable Development Goals as essentially
anthropocentric and mainly aimed at promoting economic development for (some)
humans, despite their high rhetoric to the contrary. These studies argue that the
goals are therefore unlikely to help solve the fundamental planetary problems that
arise from the specific type of unbridled neoliberal economic development that the
Sustainable Development Goals promote (Adelman 2018;Kotzé2018).
A principal concern is that the Sustainable Development Goals remain fixated
on the idea that economic growth is foundational to achieve all pillars of
sustainable development; as one author argues, the SDGs are not biocentric
aiming to respect nature for natures sake, enabling reciprocity with nature. They
embody linear growth/results thinking which requires unlimited resource
exploitation, and not cyclical thinking replacing growth with well-being (of all
beings)(van Norren 2020: 431).
In sum, owing to ontological and systemic factors, and limitations in their
design and purpose, the available literature does not see the Sustainable
Development Goals as having any significant potential to steer governance
towards a prioritization of planetary integrity. Whatever indirect steering effects
the Sustainable Development Goals might have in this respect are merely implied
through the environmental goals at the bottom of the list of the Sustainable
Development Goals. On the one hand, these environmental goals might facilitate
discussions about the importance and potential of the Sustainable Development
Goals to pursue planetary integrity. They also might inspire future initiatives that
eventually drive positive change (Kopnina 2018). Indeed, there is an increased
recognition of the importance of the environment in the SDGs(Vasseur et al
2017: 732). On the other hand, the findings of our literature survey support the
view that the Sustainable Development Goals are not fully geared towards steering,
and capable of facilitating, the pursuit of planetary integrity. Zeng et al. (2020) put
this in even starker terms, that environmental destruction [has not been] avoided
with the Sustainable Development Goals.
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We further explore this insight below, with reference to experiences at the
international, regional, national and transnational levels of governance in order to
determine in more practical terms what the steering effects of the Sustainable
Development Goals in mainstreaming planetary integrity have been.
Experiences from International Governance
We start with experiences from international governance. Here, the United Nations
Environment Assembly is often considered to be the worlds most influential
international institution for global environmental governance. Considering the
centrality of the Sustainable Development Goals to the worlds development vision
and the prominence of the Assembly and its pivotal role in global environmental
governance, one would expect that the Sustainable Development Goals are a key
consideration in the agenda of the United Nations Environment Assembly. Such a
consideration is supported by literature on the relationship between international
institutions and organizations and the Sustainable Development Goals, with
studies on whether and how international bodies can contribute to the 2030
Agenda, including environmental protection (Cormier 2016). Much scholarly
attention has therefore been on the contribution of international institutions, such
as the United Nations Environment Assembly (e.g., Ivanova 2021), to
environmental protection, although not explicitly as part of the Sustainable
Development Goals (Perrez 2020). This reflects public statements and policy
documents by these institutions, which all stress their commitment to living up to
the challenge of global environmental protection. Yet, it remains unclear to what
extent the United Nations Environment Assembly has actually promoted planetary
integrity through incorporating the environmental dimensions of the Sustainable
Development Goals in its programmes.
At first glance it seems that the Assembly has done rather well. For example, the
titles of several meetings of the Assembly embrace concerns of the Sustainable
Development Goals, such as the first United Nations Environment Assembly,
which focused on Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Develop-
ment Agenda, including sustainable consumption and production; and the fourth
assembly on Innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable
consumption and production. The choice of theme for the fifth United Nations
Environment Assembly, Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the
Sustainable Development Goals, suggests further attention to the links between
the Sustainable Development Goals and planetary integrity. This holds out
considerable potential for the Assembly to govern the complex interactions arising
from the Sustainable Development Goals, with a view to ultimately promoting
environmental concerns as its core mandate (Kaniaru 2014; Rantala et al. 2020).
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On closer examination, however, it seems that the United Nations Environment
Assembly has undertaken only tentative steps towards governing these interactions
in pursuit of planetary integrity. Attention to nexus issues that could support
broader environmental and societal benefits has gradually increased as has support
for cross-sectoral policy coherence (Rantala et al. 2020). For example, the
Assembly has emphasized the need to improve links between pollution, climate
change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation (UNEA 2018), and the need
to strengthen links between soil pollution, land use and the Sustainable
Development Goals (UNEA 2017). Another area where the Assembly has much
potential to facilitate synergies between the Sustainable Development Goals and
environmental protection is sustainable consumption and production, which it
considers essential to improve sustainability and to support the achievement of all
other goals that relate to Goal 12 (Rantala et al. 2020).
In other areas, again, the Assembly fares worse than expected. For example, an
opportunity to address interactions was missed at the fourth United Nations
Environment Assembly, which failed to approve a draft resolution Deforestation
and agricultural commodity supply chains, which was intended to halt
deforestation (Goal 15) while contributing to ensure food security and nutrition
(Goal 2) (Rantala et al. 2020). Therefore, while the United Nations Environment
Assembly is a proponent of the Sustainable Development Goals, it mostly uses the
goals to facilitate synergies between disparate environmental regimes, and to
contemporizethe work it does through the label of the Sustainable Development
Goal. The Assembly has not yet offered anything radically different that would
suggest an ambitious change of course towards planetary integrity within the
context of the Sustainable Development Goals.
As far as the climate regime is concerned, the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change recognizes the links between the Sustainable Development Goals
and climate change. It has done so in its special report on Global Warming of
1.5C, where it highlighted the Sustainable Development Goals as a key
consideration in how countries can engage in decarbonized development pathways
for sustainable development (IPCC 2018). Chapter 5 of the report, in particular,
looked at how climate change might undermine the Sustainable Development
Goals, and at possible synergies and trade-offs between responses to climate
change and the goals. With the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change Sixth Assessment Report also likely to connect climate change to the
Sustainable Development Goals, such links are encouraging insofar as influential
global scientific climate change assessments at least seem to rely on, and to reflect,
the many dimensions propagated by the Sustainable Development Goals, including
their environmental dimensions. Interestingly, however, the 2030 Agenda is not a
major reference in the Paris Climate Agreement and climate governance debates,
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although the co-evolution of the negotiations on the 2030 Agenda and the
preparation of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 have mobilized some of the
core principles of the 2030 Agenda. For example, the SDG-linked notion of co-
benefitsbetween decarbonization and economic development, and between
decarbonization and the reduction of inequalities (Deep Decarbonization Pathways
Project 2015), has been central to ensuring support for the Paris Climate
Agreement by some emerging economies and their corporations. Despite valid
concerns that this might merely amount to greenwashing (Johnsson et al. 2020), it
at least highlights interactions between key Sustainable Development Goals and
climate change in global climate change negotiations. The inclusion of Nationally
Determined Contributions and national Long-Term Strategies in the Paris
Agreement is also consistent with the centrality of country-specific transformation
pathways to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, as some proponents of the
2030 Agenda point out (Kőrösi 2015). Although it is difficult to say whether this is
as a direct result of the Sustainable Development Goals, the need to develop
decarbonization pathways that can protect biodiversity has also been put at the
centre of climate negotiations (Deprez, Vallejo and Rankovic 2019) an effort that
emphasizes possible synergies, but also conflicts, between two directly related
Sustainable Development Goals. With respect to climate finance, some financial
actors have begun to align their investment portfolios with the Paris Climate
Agreement (for example, by aligning Goals 8 and 9 with Goal 13), both as a pilot
initiative and long-term learning process aimed at more fully synergizing their
portfolios with the 2030 Agenda over the long term (OECD and UNDP 2020;
Riaño et al. 2020). A redirection of global investment strategies alongside the
framework of the Sustainable Development Goals, including, for example,
increased investment in renewable energy, could in time promote more sustainable
corporate practices that have planetary integrity as a major focus.
Reference to the Sustainable Development Goals is more explicit in the
biodiversity regime. For example, the Global Assessment Report of the
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
emphasizes the contribution of biodiversity and ecosystem services to realize all the
Sustainable Development Goals (IPBES 2019). The draft texts under discussion for
the proposed 2030 framework of the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity also reference
the 2030 Agenda and the institutions in charge of this agenda through two entry
points. One is the proposed global biodiversity goals for 2030 that will be decided at
the 2021 conference of the parties. These will likely include not only goals centred
on biodiversity but also on the contribution of biodiversity to reaching Sustainable
Development Goals and their targets, such as food security (Convention on
Biodiversity 2020). The overall aim of these goals is to anchor biodiversity integrity
in the broader development perspectives of countries.
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Another entry point is efforts related to facilitate mainstreaming, where the
Convention on Biological Diversity could define a collective work programme
with other institutions that are responsible for sectors that impact biodiversity
conservation (such as the Food and Agricultural Organization for food systems
transformation, and the World Trade Organization for global trade). To legitimize
such a co-defined work programme, which is aimed at strengthening synergies,
some studies have proposed that the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable
Development should be the overarching institution for such a process (Kinniburgh
and Rankovic 2019).
While the Sustainable Development Goals seem to have shaped discussions
around the climate and biodiversity regimes and to have drawn attention to and
consolidate support for specific concerns and their interlinkages, many key issues
of planetary integrity had been part of negotiations well before the adoption of the
2030 Agenda. In climate governance, for example, negotiations on issues that
could create wider environmental co-benefits beyond Sustainable Development
Goal 13 such as land use, land-use change and forestry precede the 2030
Agenda. In 2011, states set guidelines for activities on land use, land-use change
and forestry under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
that should [b]e consistent with the objective of environmental integrity and take
into account the multiple functions of forests and other ecosystemsand [b]e
consistent with Partiesnational sustainable development needs and goals
(UNFCCC 2010). In biodiversity governance, the Sustainable Development Goals
are grounded in earlier commitments from several international agreements and
soft law instruments, rather than the other way around. This is reflected, for
example, in the Aichi Targets, which form the basis of the targets under
Sustainable Development Goal 15, including target 15.1 on conservation and
target 15.3 on reversing biodiversity degradation. The post-2020 global
biodiversity framework that will define goals for global biodiversity governance
up to 2030 further builds on these targets, but also aims to raise ambition,
especially those targets under Goal 15 that end by 2020 (for example, targets 15.1,
15.2 and 15.3) (Rantala et al. 2020). While the Sustainable Development Goals can
build on previous commitments, some studies highlight the adverse distributional
consequences of biodiversity conservation regimes that are concentrated in
countries with high levels of economic inequality and poor democratic institutions
(Kashwan 2017). This is an instance of potential trade-offs between the
centralizing tendencies of goal-oriented governance against the potential for
process-oriented approaches that offer alternative opportunities to resolve
deliberations over the prioritization of goals.
So far, we have discussed international institutions with an explicit environ-
mental policy mandate. How about institutions that have environmental protection
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not as their primary task? Are they influenced by environmental components of the
Sustainable Development Goals? The limited literature on this issue (the bulk of
information is drawn from studies conducted by these institutions themselves)
observes here mostly secondarysteering towards environmental protection by
upgrading an institutions environmental profile to contribute to the overall success
of the 2030 Agenda (e.g., IMF 2021; World Bank 2015). Secondary steering refers
to change that happens in the name of the Sustainable Development Goals. For
example, one study has shown a trend towards more environmental integration in
the International Labour Organizations approach to sustainability, in normative
and institutional terms (Montesano et al. 2021). This trend seems to have
accelerated and coincides with the vision of the 2030 Agenda. However, when it
comes to environmental protection, the link between the International Labour
Organization and the Sustainable Development Goals is not straightforward. On
the one hand, the negotiation and adoption of the goals has left its mark on the
evolution of environmental ideas, norms and institutions within the International
Labour Organization, particularly regarding framing programmes such as Green
Jobs and partnerships for sustainability (ILO 2019). On the other hand, the
International Labour Organization sees itself more as a manager than a recipient of
the goals, stressing its active and deliberate role in shaping the 2030 Agenda in line
with its priorities and in selectively using the goals as a platform to catalyse its
socio-economic mandate (ILO 2015; 2016).
In sum, the literature studies do not support claims that the Sustainable
Development Goals reorient international organizations towards planetary
integrity, especially when such organizations are only indirectly concerned with
environmental protection, such as the International Labour Organization (Montesano
et al. 2021). The Sustainable Development Goals at best only seem to have
secondary steering effects in this regard. Their impact on international organizations,
as far as advancing planetary integrity is concerned, is indirect to the extent that they
only offer a loose framework for creating synergies and emphasising the need to
pursue environmental protection goals, many of which have already been agreed
well before the 2030 Agenda came into being. Considering our earlier arguments
about the limited prominence of planetary integrity in the 2030 Agenda and
conceptual doubts about the ability of the Sustainable Development Goals to steer
towards planetary integrity, expectations related to their impact on international
organizations to pursue planetary integrity must be further diluted.
Experiences from Regional Governance
It is often claimed that the European Union is a frontrunner in regional
environmental governance. It is, for example, one of the few major regional actors
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to have enshrined the concept of planetary boundaries in its legal system
(Fernández and Malwé 2019). Some early European Parliament resolutions already
featured the idea of planetary boundaries, including one mentioning them as being
imperativefor the 2030 Agenda (European Parliament 2013a), while the 7th
Environment Action Programme, titled Living Well, within the Limits of Our
Planet, includes references to planetary boundaries and ecological limits. More
recent studies by European Union agencies, such as the European Environment
Agency, further apply the concept and develop the idea of a safe operating space
for Europe(European Environment Agency 2020). The Environment Action
Programme also directly links its ambitious vision of ecological limits with the
Sustainable Development Goals: the goals constitute politically binding
environmental commitments(European Parliament 2013b: paragraph 13), and
both the European Union and its member states are to ensure that such
commitments are implemented (Corrado et al. 2020). The Environment Action
Programme further calls on the European Union to ensure that its post-2015
approach to development, including its reliance on the Sustainable Development
Goals, reflects an integrated understanding of sustainable development. It
specifically mentions environmental concerns such as climate change and
biodiversity (European Parliament 2013b: paragraph 106.i).
Likewise, a 2016 European Commission communication explicitly links the
need to transform European Union production and consumption to achieve a low-
carbon, climate resilient, resource efficient and circular economyto Sustainable
Development Goals 8 and 12 (European Commission 2016: 2). More recently, the
European Union Circular Economy Action Plan and the Bioeconomy Strategy of
2018 have showcased the growing awareness of the importance of an integrated
approach to production and consumption when addressing environmental impacts
(Sanyé-Mengual et al. 2019). The European Union Commissions Directorate-
General for International Partnerships also explicitly links European Union
development initiatives to the Sustainable Development Goals (European
Commission 2020a). For example, with reference to Goal 13, it stresses European
Union assistance to partner countries to transition to low-carbon sustainable
development. All this shows that the Sustainable Development Goals have played
a role in orienting the European Unions environmental laws and policies towards
the pursuit of planetary integrity at least on paper.
While these are all positive signs that could advance planetary integrity under
the guidance of the Sustainable Development Goals, the European Unions goals-
inspired sustainability roadmap still sees economic growth as a key enabler, in
stark contrast to scientific evidence about the incompatibility of economic growth
and long-term environmental protection (Hickel 2021). For example, for Goals
14 and 15, there are no specific indications in European Union law and policy
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about new initiatives that would follow the Sustainable Development Goals, only a
cursory mention of earlier programmes, such as Biodiversity for Life, which was
launched in 2014.
Nevertheless, environmental concerns linked to the Sustainable Development
Goals seem to become more central in Brussels. For example, the Juncker
Commission published in 2019 a reflection paper titled Towards a Sustainable
Europe by 2030(European Commission 2019), which mentioned the Sustainable
Development Goals as an agenda for the European Union to address
interdependent challenges. The paper emphasizes ecological debtas the greatest
challenge to ensuring sustainability for future generations, and explicitly mentions
planetary boundaries as the ecological limits that must shape socio-economic
systems (European Commission 2019: 10). In its text on Sustainable Development
Goal 15, the link between the 2030 Agenda and planetary integrity discourse is
especially strong. The von der Leyen Commission later launched the European
Union Green Deal as an umbrella for a range of policy initiatives to make Europe a
climate-neutral continent. One such initiative is the European Union 2030 Biodi-
versity Strategy (European Commission 2020b); another is a new industrial
strategy (European Commission 2020c). In some of these initiatives, links to the
Sustainable Development Goals are explicit, and the initiatives are often presented
as an integral part of the European Unions efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda
(European Commission 2020b: 19), highlighting some convergence between
global and European sustainability agendas.
Across the Atlantic, the Latin America and the Caribbean region is important in
leading up to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development
Goals. Here, many countries and regional governance bodies were involved in the
negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (Nicolai et al. 2016). As a
response to the United Nationscall for regional cooperation in implementing the
2030 Agenda, the members of the Economic Commission for Latin America and
the Caribbean (ECLAC) established a forum on sustainable development in 2016
(ECLAC 2016). This forum is open to stakeholders but remains a state-led regional
institution that seeks to contribute to the 2030 Agenda by, among others,
strengthening coordination and cooperation, sharing best practices and providing
political guidance and reviewing regional progress. The forum also seeks to foster
the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development in a holistic and
cross-sectoral manner, including environmental protection and the promotion of
living well in harmony with nature. Since its creation, the forum has recognized in
several of its meetings the environmental dimensions of the Sustainable
Development Goals (UNEP and Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico Internacional
2020). For instance, it has been noted that development policies must take into
account the environmental dimensionand that policy-making should promote
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structural progressive change towards sustainable development in order to protect
ecosystems and biodiversity;break the link between production and pollution;
move towards low carbon economies;detoxify the air, soil and waterand
promote a shift towards sustainable use of natural resources (ECLAC 2017, 2018).
Governments also stressed that the 2030 Agenda, more than having environ-
mental goals, was environmental as a whole, because progress could not be made
on health or industrialization without taking the relevant environmental
considerations into account(ECLAC 2018: 41). While all these references
indicate some efforts of the forum to integrate the environmental dimension of the
Sustainable Development Goals into regional policies, these are still limited and do
not include specific commitments (UNEP and Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico
Internacional 2020). Critics also question to what extent this might lead to a form
of socio-economic growth that respects planetary integrity in Latin America and
the Caribbean, especially when environmentally destructive investment policies
continue being prioritized (Ray and Gallagher 2016). The forum, for example, still
prioritizes economic issues, while stressing the need for economic growth
(ECLAC 2017, 2019), which will presumably be based on the extraction-based
model prevailing in Latin America and the Caribbean (Silva 2012).
The Forum of Ministers of Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean
contributes to the integration of environmental priorities into the implementation of
the 2030 Agenda (UNEP 2016; UNEP and Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico
Internacional 2020). In 2016, the forum revised and updated the Latin American
and Caribbean Initiative for Sustainable Development to support the 2030 Agenda
(UNEP 2016). The Initiative for Sustainable Development includes priority areas,
goals and purposes for actions linked to environment-related Sustainable
Development Goals, such as water management (Goal 6); energy (Goal 7); and
climate change (Goal 13). The forum also agreed to promote the conservation and
sustainable use of biodiversity and its mainstreaming in sectors such as agriculture,
mining and energy (UNEP 2016, 2018).
Yet, despite such alignment of policies with environment-related Sustainable
Development Goals, some studies doubt the benefits in relation to advancing
planetary integrity in the region. For example, Hirons(2020: 327) study on the
interplay of the goals and mining argued that the prospects for the Sustainable
Development Goals contributing positively to efforts to address environmental and
social issues in ASM [artisanal and small-scale mining] are poor. With reference
to Goal 12, the Initiative for Sustainable Development refers to the need to
improve resource efficiency and sustainable patterns of consumption and
production to support economic growth (UNEP 2016). But in a region where
national economies heavily rely on natural resources extraction and exports (Silva
2012; UNEP 2017), sustained economic growth inevitably leads to an increased
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demand for these resources while amplifying environmental degradation (UNEP
and World Conservation Monitoring Centre 2016).
In 2016, the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American
Program for Sustainable Development 201621 (Organization of American States
2017a). It defines strategic actions to ensure that the work of the organizations
secretariat is aligned with the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and that its
objectives are guided by the Sustainable Development Goals (Organization of
American States 2017a). The programme supports actions in focus areas, such as
sustainable management of ecosystems (Goal 15); integrated water resources
management (Goal 6); and sustainable energy management (Goal 7). While the
Organization of American States has agreed on an institutional policy instrument
that integrates environmental concerns, and while its members have reaffirmed
their inalienable prerogative to defend Mother Earth, the planet, and life with
consistent policies and practices(Organization of American States 2017b: 95;
original in Spanish), the declarations and resolutions adopted by its General
Assembly since 2016 show that no significant actions have been taken to establish
an ambitious regional scheme towards safeguarding planetary integrity.
In sum, the Sustainable Development Goals seem to be more central in regional
governance bodies as compared to international organizations. Our analysis suggests
that it is especially the European Union that has most significantly advanced in
linking its governance agenda with the 2030 Agenda and developing environment-
focused policies because of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the Global
South, Latin American and Caribbean institutions seem to be rhetorically committed
to integrating the Sustainable Development Goalsconcerns into regional policies,
but they fall short on more concrete action plans (Lucci, Surasky and Gamba 2015;
Páez Vieyra 2019; UNEP and Centro de Pensamiento Estratégico Internacional
2018) While both of these regional institutions seem to actively recognize the
importance of the Sustainable Development Goals and their environmental goals,
which have been incorporated into some regional policies and plans, the actual
environmental steering effects of the Goals seem to be limited, while efforts to
strengthen environmental protection in the face of unconstrained socio-economic
development remain a challenge. We therefore doubt whether the Sustainable
Development Goals as such will suffice to drive radical change towards planetary
integrity in a developed European region where economic development remains a
key priority, and in the Latin American and Caribbean region, which continues to
face numerous environmental conflicts and developmental challenges.
Experience from National Governance
We now turn to national governance. Here we focus on the example of South
Africa, a highly unequal country with many socio-economic challenges, including
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poverty, unemployment and low and unequal levels of access to water, sanitation
and adequate housing. These must all be addressed within the context of a fragile
ecological system.
Some progress has been reported: for example, access to electricity has
increased from 36 per cent at the end of apartheid to 95 per cent by 2017 (Bekker
et al. 2008; Government of South Africa 2019). This contributes to achieving
Sustainable Development Goal 7, which in turn helps realize other goals (Fuso
Nerini et al. 2018; Santika et al. 2019). However, South Africas economy still
heavily depends on coal, which supplies most of South Africas electricity; this is
contrary to the clean energy objective of Goal 7 and the goal of combating climate
change (Goal 13). While climate change is receiving more attention in South
Africa (as evidenced by stronger climate policies), the Integrated Resource Plan
2019 provides that coal power will still account for 59 per cent of South Africas
electricity supply by 2030, while wind and solar power will supply only 25 per
cent. Although this increased share of renewable energy which today is less than
2 per cent is promising and can contribute to the achievement of Goals 7, 12 and
13, it remains insufficient. Importantly, the reliance on coal will bring adverse
impacts on health (Goal 3), water (Goal 6), and life on land (Goal 15). Coal-based
electricity generation also adds to climate change (Goal 13) and ocean acidification
(Goal 14). In short, climate and energy-related governance in South Africa is not
yet consistent with advancing planetary integrity, despite the Sustainable
Development Goals. Although this must be seen in the context of the principle
of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities that direct
the climate policies and governance of many Global South countries, South
Africas progress on Goal 13, in particular, has been described as stagnating(De
la Mothe Karoubi et al. 2019). The countrys Nationally Determined Contribution
under the Paris Climate Agreement has also been rated as highly insufficient,asit
would contribute to a global temperature increase of three to four degrees Celsius
(Climate Action Tracker n.d.). In turn, the South African government highlights
that climate change is complicating efforts to address the countrys socio-economic
challenges (Government of South Africa 2019; Mugambiwa and Tirivangasi
2017). This experience is in line with the broader observation that climate change
may exacerbate socio-economic risks and vulnerabilities, particularly in develop-
ing countries (El Bilali et al. 2020; Islam and Khan 2018; Reyer et al. 2015).
Even though South Africas 2012 National Development Plan preceded the
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the government still reports that is has
a74 per cent convergencewith the Sustainable Development Goals (Government
of South Africa 2019: 5). While the National Development Plan includes a chapter
dedicated to environmental sustainability and refers to many ecological challenges,
the focus of the National Development Plan is on socio-economic development.
For example, the plan argues that to address poverty and inequality (the countrys
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main challenge), the economy must grow faster and in ways that benefit all South
Africans(National Planning Commission 2012: 24). This focus is reiterated in the
latest 201924 Medium-Term Strategic Framework, a five-year plan through
which the National Development Plan is implemented. The centrality of the National
Development Plan in the South African policy context is clear. For instance, in
assessing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals generally, the government
uses the National Development Plan as a starting point (Government of South Africa
2019). Also, when considering progress on the environmental goals and climate
change, the government refers to policies, strategies and programmes, with the
National Development Plan as the overarching policy(Statistics South Africa 2019:
155). While the government highlights policies towards the more environment-oriented
Sustainable Development Goals, most of these predate the Sustainable Development
Goals. Only four out of 12 energy- and climate-related policy documents published
since 2016 mention the Sustainable Development Goals, with only a few containing
explicit links to the goals (for example, the Draft Post-2015 National Energy Efficiency
Strategy). Most of these policy documents,however,aremeanttobeinlinewiththe
National Development Plan. Thus, while they are relevant to the Sustainable
Development Goals, the goals themselves have not shaped these policy measures.
Furthermore, as suggested above, most economic growth measures are not necessarily
consistent with safeguarding planetary integrity. Rather, the government has attempted
to align the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals with its domestic
development agenda(Haywood et al. 2019:557).
Importantly, there is not much evidence that the Sustainable Development Goals
had any significant steering effects to advance planetary integrity in South Africa,
a country that still focuses on economic growth in order to achieve its main
objective of addressing poverty and inequality. This appears to be consistent with
experience elsewhere. Some research has shown, for example, that countries of
varying income levels prioritize those Sustainable Development Goals that are
consistent with their earlier development policies (Forestier and Kim 2020), and
that the Sustainable Development Goals serve to legitimis[e] development goals
and policies that have already been decided on(Horn and Grugel 2018: 74). The
general trend is that many countries prioritize the socio-economic goals over the
environmental goals (Randers et al. 2019); as Forestier and Kim (2020: 1269)
concluded, poverty eradication and economic growth were by far most widely
prioritizedby developing and developed countries alike.
Experiences from Transnational Governance
While Chapter 3 of this book focused, among others, on the more general steering
effects of the Sustainable Development Goals in relation to corporate actors, this
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section specifically interrogates the environmental steering effects of the Sustainable
Development Goals in the transnational corporate sector. Here we ask the question:
Do the Sustainable Development Goals have any steering effects in relation to
transnational corporate actors as far as the promotion of planetary integrity is
concerned? Some studies find that some companies go beyond the growth-paradigm
in their operations through innovative sustainability business models (Coscieme
et al. 2019). Yet, many companies still seem to support the view that prioritizes
productive functions of ecosystems over non-productive life supporting functions
such as, in particular, biodiversity and climate stabilization(De Schutter et al. 2019:
2). Accordingly, business leaders are encouraged to understand that the firm exists
as part of, and because of, the socio-ecological system, and competitive advantage is
found through the combination of internal competencies and from the full
consideration of external drivers(Sullivan, Thomas and Rosano 2018: 245).
Amidst such concerns, and as shown in Chapter 3 of this volume, the
Sustainable Development Goals seem to have sparked a renewed push for
corporate participation in the 2030 Agenda. Networks like Businesses for 2030
(United States Council for International Business 2020) and the World Business
Council for Sustainable Developments Sustainable Development Goals Business
Hub (World Business Council for Sustainable Development 2020), for instance,
seek to showcase best practices and to support the integration of the Sustainable
Development Goals into corporate practices. The United Nations Global Compact,
with over 5,000 companies participating, provides tools and information to drive
business awareness and action in support of the SDGs(United Nations Global
Compact 2020). Its Action Platforms on issues such as Sustainable Ocean Business
and Decent Work in Global Supply Chains aim to foster collective action and
underline how business activities need to operate within planetary boundaries.
Generally seen, research suggests that, on balance, integration of the Sustainable
Development Goals into the business sector is growing (Dahlmann et al. 2020;
Williams, Whiteman and Parker 2019). Since 2017, the share of companies
publishing sustainability reports in line with Goal 12.6. has nearly doubled (United
Nations 2020), and over 85 per cent of the worlds 500 largest corporations include
the Sustainable Development Goals in their annual reporting (United Nations
Global Sustainability Index Institute 2019). Goal 13 was found to be the most
frequently referenced goal (88 per cent), whereas Goal 15 (51 per cent) and Goal
14 (32 per cent) lag behind (World Business Council for Sustainable Development
2019), drawing a less optimistic picture of corporate engagement in pursuing
planetary integrity. Scholars therefore stress the urgent need to transform
traditional business models to better protect the global environment (Coscieme
et al. 2019; De Schutter et al. 2019; Scheyvens, Banks and Hughes 2016;
Shrivastava 2018).
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Despite a growing integration of the Sustainable Development Goals into
sustainability performance assessments of corporations, studies have criticized the
insufficient contribution of the goals to helping companies diagnose the proximate
and systemic causes of poor performance(Fleming et al. 2017: 98). Of even
greater concern is the widespread perception that businesses engage in so-called
SDG washing, that is, using the Sustainable Development Goals to increase
social legitimacy while concealing only modest sustainability efforts or
malpractices (Dahlmann et al. 2020). Moreover, one survey indicates that
international businesses rather engage with the Sustainable Development Goals
internally (along their value chain), than externally (in collaboration with partners),
and they are keener to address targets under the Sustainable Development Goals
that mitigate negative externalities than those directed at generating positive
externalities (van Zanten and van Tulder 2018). Specifically, high engagement was
found with Sustainable Development Goals 5, 8, 12, 13, 16 and 17. Slight or no
contributions, in turn, were found regarding Goals 11, 14 and 15. While this points
to a worrying trend in corporationsinability to address social, environmental and
economic targets collectively, it also suggests that corporations only marginally
engage with those Sustainable Development Goals that relate more explicitly to
planetary integrity (such as Goals 14 and 15). On a more positive note, some
studies indicate that non-state transnational sustainability governance can also
complement state efforts; but this is also dependent on an internationally agreed
framework and regulation of, and cooperation with, state actors to increase
accountability and long-term sustainability effects (Chan et al. 2019; Kumi,
Yeboah and Kumi 2020). In that sense, the presence of Sustainable Development
Goals as a common denominator or normative guiding framework might
contribute to providing a shared vision for corporations, enabling a collective
drive towards integrated sustainability governance that respects planetary integrity.
In sum, our analysis suggests that the extent to which corporations rely on the
Sustainable Development Goals to bolster their efforts in pursuit of planetary
integrity remains a mixed bag. Overall, corporations seem to be more receptive
towards embracing the Sustainable Development Goals generally, which is
positive. But the environment-focused Sustainable Development Goals apparently
play only a peripheral role in steering corporations towards the integration of
planetary integrity concerns into their activities. This is worrisome considering, on
the one hand, that corporations remain major drivers of ecological destruction, and
on the other hand, that corporations can also be hugely influential in initiating and
driving transformative change in pursuit of planetary integrity (e.g., Wright and
Nyberg 2015). More fully embracing the environmental dimensions of the
Sustainable Development Goals could offer corporations a valuable opportunity to
drive such positive transformations.
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Conclusions and Future Directions
The Sustainable Development Goals are clear on the need to protect the planet.
However, the extent to which the goals could mainstream planetary integrity into
laws, policies and practices, and to steer towards planetary integrity, remain
debatable. Some studies argue that the Sustainable Development Goals are
incapable, or only marginally able, of doing so; yet other studies contend that the
goals may still help mobilize resources and galvanize action in pursuit of
planetary integrity.
Based on the findings from our analyses, the balance of evidence leans towards
the critics, which leads us to conclude that the Sustainable Development Goals
have not (yet) become a significant transformative governance force aimed at the
advancement of planetary integrity through the process of goal-setting. Therefore,
on balance, we find that the steering effects of the Sustainable Development Goals
with respect to planetary integrity are rather indirect and not too significant.At
best, the Sustainable Development Goals seem to have played a role in the
orchestration of disparate environmental policies and regimes, but they surely did
not manage to radically change the course of global governance to advance
planetary integrity. While we observe some political and institutional changes as a
result of the Sustainable Development Goals, and while the goals seem to have
been cited as an inspiration or motivation by many actors, numerous doubts
remain: about additionality (whether changes we observed would not have
materialized without the goals); about ambition (whether the goals call for
something drastically new and sufficiently ambitious); about coherence (whether
the goals are themselves coherent enough to be able to foster a push towards
planetary integrity); and about implementation (whether the means of implementa-
tion in the goals actually have the ability to improve their steering effects).
What explains this lack of impact remains unclear; and these are all issues that
require further research. Is it the design of the Sustainable Development Goals
themselves? In other words, had the Sustainable Development Goals been
differently designed (or agreed through a different process), would we see a more
(or even less) impactful set of global goals? Here we can think of design elements
such as the number of goals, the structure of the goal framework (for example, the
non-hierarchical structure), the coherence between the goals, the specificity or
measurability of the targets, the language used in the text, and their reliance on
neoliberal economic development-oriented sustainable development as their core
orientation. Furthermore, one may argue that sustainability on a planetary scale is
only achievable under an overarching Planetary Integrity Goal that recognizes the
biophysical limits of the planet, as we have shown above. Some scholars have also
raised questions about the relationship between the nature of the negotiations of the
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goals, targets and indicators and their impact, especially on mainstreaming
environmental concerns (Gasper, Shah and Tankha 2019).
Yet, no matter the design of Sustainable Development Goals, they are only non-
binding and aspirational. Any form of governance through goalsis inherently not
an effective alternative to governance through rules(Kanie et al. 2019), although
these approaches could, and arguably should, usefully reinforce one another.
Furthermore, the Sustainable Development Goals are a mere reflection of the
existing normative framework of international law (Kim 2016). Any governance
through goalsapproach under the Sustainable Development Goals banner must be
sensitive to the problem of path-dependency: Do the goals have a realistic chance
to be something truly transformative if they are merely a collection of earlier
commitments, reflecting already agreed language? While we remain doubtful of
the transformative potential of the goals, we are hopeful that global institutions
such as the High-level Political Forum can help mainstream environmental
concerns of a planetary nature at global, regional, national and transnational levels,
if further strengthened with the necessary resources and authority (Abbott and
Bernstein 2015; Stevens and Kanie 2016).
Clearly more research is needed to understand the impact of the Sustainable
Development Goals on planetary integrity and the extent to which they, and their
successors, could contribute to steering human development in a way that pursues
and respects planetary integrity. For one, the lack of empirical data and the
concomitant critical research gap that we have identified in this chapter dealing
with the actual ability of the Sustainable Development Goals to steer in relation to
planetary integrity must be addressed. This could be done, for example, by
documenting conditions under which the Sustainable Development Goals are
operating and comparing these to identify necessary or sufficient conditions for the
Sustainable Development Goals to make a positive impact. Causality is always
difficult to prove between the Sustainable Development Goals and any changes we
see, especially in the environmental domain. To overcome this hurdle, we need
both more in-depth case studies and large-nquantitative data analysis, as well as
medium-ncomparative analysis in between.
Finding out how, when and why the Sustainable Development Goals could put
the planet at the centre of concern will be a key challenge in the years to come.
This epistemic endeavour will be rewarding for generating specific and
generalizable insights on how and why global goals work or do not work. Only
an advanced understanding of the mechanisms through which the Sustainable
Development Goals have impacts on planetary integrity will lead to policy-relevant
knowledge that could help guide a post-2030 goal-setting process, and enable
actors such as states, regional organizations, institutions and corporations to decide
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on whether to adopt and to pursue in a dedicated manner post-2030 global goals,
and if so, in what form and through what process.
Note
1 Search string ( ( TITLE ( sustainable development goals) ) ) OR TITLE ( sdgs) AND
( ( TITLE-ABS-KEY ( environment*) ) ) AND ( ( TITLE-ABS-KEY ( governance))).
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