Issue Linkage and the Prospects for SDGs’ contribution to Sustainability

Peter M. Haas, Professor of Political Science (University of Massachusetts Amherst).

A paradox stalks Sustainable Development. While there is a political impulse at the UN for establishing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is not yet a clear consensus about what is Sustainable Development, its desirability, nor how to achieve it.

SDGs are intended to be norms to guide the development community from 2015-2025 in promoting sustainability. There are multiple types of norms – discursive (Sneddon, Howarth et al. 2006), generative, aspirational, and internalized – here I refer to aspirational those which states are willing to invoke to create institutional arraignments, be they formal organizations, coordinated policies, resource transfers, and the like. I do not treat norms as those standards by which states are willing to be judged. Sustainability is roughly, an integrative category that links or couples the pursuit of economic, social and environemtnal activities in ways that at the very least don’t interfere with another, and at the most, promote a more just, ecological integrated, equitable future than improves the quality of life. Thus, Sustainability norms are conceptual frames that enable linking projects and policies to promote sustainability. Sustainability, in turn, has two components: substantive measures of performance in a particular domain, and procedural elements relating to increased accountability, improved governance, information flow, and participation. Progress is a measure of movement over time – replacing politically intractable political policy frames with more tractable ones, and also achieving concrete improvements in the pursuit of individual sustainability goals.

The SDGs are intended to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs set 8 global development goals for 2015, most of which appear to be on track for being met, although it is dispute to what extent the achievements are due to broader economic trends and to what extent it is due to the intentional efforts by development community to target resources on their behalf.

The MDGs achieved the poverty component because it was based on a shared norm, albeit one that had been actively constructed through the focused activities of a global network of development norm entrepreneurs. (Fukuda-Parr and Hulme 2011) Poverty reduction, if not elimination, was widely achieved in most areas other than the poorest areas of sub-Saharan Africa. The MDGs on women’s rights appear to have been reached, as well as the access to cleaner water, although the climate change ones were not really met, beyond achievements that exceeded the intentional abilities of the major economies. That is, reductions in GHGs largely occurred through market forces based on recessions and fuel switching to natural gas, partially driven by technological change from fracking, partially from responses to high oil policies, rather than energy or sustainability policies.

SDGs are more demanding than MDGs. They require integrating activities, rather than pursuing independent list of goals. Moreover, SDGs require harnessing interconnected activities into a comprehensive effort that will transform modern economies in directions that are more equitable, environmental friendly, and generate jobs.

Research on issue linkage in world politics reveals that progress on coupling interconnected issues into a comprehensive agenda with resources requires agreement amongst states on norms and on the causal understanding about which issues are significantly interconnected. (Haas 1980) In addition it requires institutional designs that bring together environmental and economic ministries (or international institutions) in a manner where both are attentive and neither dominates. Two political processes drive such agenda consolidation: social learning about common causal arguments that identify key threats and their interconnections,(Haas 1992) and norm development which constructs the normative or principled commitment to addressing a particular set of issues. (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998) Such consensus is primarily at the level of governments and political elite, although the ideas on which political consensus is based often percolate up from domestic and transnational epistemic communities and norm entrepreneurs.

Prospects for Comprehensive Issue Linkage

States agree on causal linkages States disagree on causal linkages
States agree on norms Social Learning
States disagree on norms linkages Incremental tactical linkage

We have agreement on neither at the international level. Selectively we have them for some issues, and the best I feel we can do in the short term is identify the topics on which there is agreement, seek to encourage policy learning about their interconnections, and develop governance institutions at the UN that can help promote consensus building on a broader framework and set of interconnected issues. There are pockets of consensus about some of the ingredients, and simultaneous pursuit of these ingredients may yield a more sustainable whole, as well as promoting the prospect of governments and publics learning about the interconnections between global issues, and the need for more sustainable approaches. If we put them on the agenda can move incrementally between them. In the absence of such consensus the best that
can occur is traditional logrolling that provides for tactical linkages, which is incapable of formulating a meaningful and resilient agenda that can contribute to sustainability. At best it will yield unbalanced pillars of sustainability. They will be based on short-term possibilities for combining the goals of the most influential parties. The major economic players in the UN currently include the USA, EU, Russia, China, Brazil, Japan, and possibly S. Africa.

What are the prospects for an integrated package? The current UN state of play is not optimistic. The High Level Panel on SDGs – intended to provide the technical consensual foundations – instead tried to combine the rhetorical with the substantive. It has identified 5 possible goals, and a longer list of 12 targets.


  1. End extreme poverty
  2. SD at core
  3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth
  4. Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all
  5. Forge a new global partnership

Targets: This is a very clever ingredient in the report, as the MDGs are also believed to have been driven by the targets associated with them. However, the MDGs had the targets drafted after the Millennium Declaration by governments, and were drafted by the secretariat without direct state accountability. It is pretty clear that the UNGA is no longer willing to tolerate such bureaucratic stealth, so the HLP anticipated such political resistance by directly including the targets.

The High Level Panel will still have to reconcile its input with the UNGA, which will take the HDP report into account along with UNSG report in fall when it issues the final political resolution in 12/14.

The UNGA Open Ended WG on SDGs is also working on the issue, and is the political institutions which will adopt the actual SDGs. But it is largely concerned with the question of the distribution of economic costs for achieving such goals, in particular ensuring that developing countries are compensated by the international community for any additional expenditure on behalf of achieving the goals, and that jobs and technology created by the goals are shared with the developing world.

Ongoing disagreements hinder any normative consensus. Is sustainability a primary goal, or should existing MDGs just be fine-tuned to be made sustainable should the 3 pillars of sustainability be addressed simultaneously, or should refined targets be developed for each one? While the goals are presumably global, should the targets be global or national, and binding or voluntary? What happens when 192 countries each embrace different national targets? Can we prevent the kind of least common denominator commitments that shaped the Kyoto Protocol GHG emission targets?

There is contestation over what are presumptive sustainability and environmental norms. (Iwama 1992; Beyerlin 2007; Sands and Peel 2012) Few of the goals enunciated by the HDP seem to be widely shared norms, in the sense of the UN Charter or those that have been expressed in regular binding commitments and practices, other than ending poverty. Regularly cited normative claimants include the following:

  • Precautionary Principle (PP) – in some fisheries conventions, Stockholm POPs, biosafety
  • Polluter Pays Principle (PPP)
  • Prior Informed Consent (PIC)
  • Intergenerational equity
  • Common but differentiated responsibility
  • Basic human needs
  • Human rights – no genocide, civil liberties, rights of children and women.
  • Human rights for the environment, modeled on right to water, food, etc.
  • Metanorms of multilateralism and sovereignty

There is no normative consensus on environmental protection. (Sand 1999) Many incompatible injunctions fill the landscape. Many of the presumptive sources are soft law and not legally binding, and many treaties lack ratification by some major parties. Thus they may suffer from illegitimacy in the sense of commanding neither universal support nor likely to be effective because they do not include all the parties who are capable of resolving the question at hand.

Green Economy, or a transformation to a low carbon economy, is contested, because of concern about jobs and technology transfer, and interim adjustment costs by coal and oil producers.

There is no unified framework for Sustainability; no universal consensus exists about systemic goals, beyond poverty alleviation. We know that progress can be achieved through stealth as well as a direct normative and political assault. Indeed, ecology was once dubbed the subversive science because it focused our attention on these connections.

In the absence of universal and uniform consensus, we should be looking for individual substantive components that seem to contain dual consensus and can be aggregated or amalgamated to systemic sustainability.

From the HLP list of 12, 5 goals are taken from the MDGs, so they are presumably stable. Good governance is included, because institutional infrastructure is always necessary to support sustainability efforts in the UN system. The High Level Political Forum, intended to replace the UNCSD, should provide the scientific support for a concerted approach to sustainability. At the very least it should collect sustainability data, assess progress, and organize sustainability assessments. It should also coordinate with existing international science panels, and identify any gaps where further knowledge is required. It should provide for involvement by scientists, private sector and civil society representatives.

Three additional items seem to command support. Sustainable energy is now a common public policy goal that is supported by solid technical analysis. (Pacala and Socolow 2004; Knox-Hayes, Brown et al. 2013) Food security, despite disagreements about GMOs, is a candidate for the SDGs, as is resource security.

Less clear that the following command universal normative or consensual support:

In short, I have considered two strategies for approaching a more sustainable future. One is by harnessing shared norms and causal beliefs behind a direct sustainability agenda, which I have argued is unwarranted. The second is a more piece meal approach, which aggregates agreement on specific elements out of the hope that together they will give rise to second order substantive learning and sustainable transformations. There seems to be limited support for some of these, but without mobilizing financial resources behind all of them it will be a hard sell.



Beyerlin, U. (2007). Different Types of Norms in International Environmental Law. The Oxford Handbook of International Environmental Law. D. Bodansky, J. Brunnee and E. Hey. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 426-448.