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Werner Scholtz and Michelle Barnard

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) collectively embody the global stance on the economic, social and environmental actions needed to achieve sustainable development. With reference to the environmental component of the SDG framework, one sees that four distinct Goals pertaining to different elements of planet earth, namely: the atmosphere (SDG 13), water resource – both fresh (SDG 6) and marine (SDG 14), as well as biodiversity (SDG 15) are included. The deconstruction of the environment in this way is strongly criticized by some as a step back from the single Millennium Development Goal (MDG) dealing with environmental sustainability (MDG 7) contained in the Millennium Declaration, 2000. The current approach to achieving sustainable development is now fragmented along the lines of the above-mentioned silo-ist division. Another point of criticism against the SDGs framework is the lack of explicit reference to international legal instruments pertaining to individual SDGs. This general critique is to some extent also true of the specific environmental SDGs where we see little cross-referencing to international environmental law that could provide a more solid legal base for the enforcement of the SDGs – which are legally non-binding. It is, however, possible to read in implicit references to a number of international environmental law instruments when analysing the wording of the Targets which underpin the individual environmental SDGs. In this chapter the legal nature of the SDGs, the fragmentation of the environment and the potential role of binding international law in solidifying the legal nature of the 2030 Agenda will be discussed in order to answer the question we pose in the title: the environment and the SDGs – are we on a road to nowhere?

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Karen Morrow

This chapter considers key factors shaping the pursuit of gender equality and women’s empowerment under the SDGs. In so doing, it examines some of the most significant concerns that may militate against the goals achieving these ends. These include the legacy of the Millennium Development Goals regime and in particular the limitations that have become apparent during its operation in progressing societal change through the goals, targets and indicators-oriented approach pioneered therein and pursued in the successor SDGs regime. The chapter also discusses the tensions inherent in the adoption of a discrete gender goal on the one hand and integration of gender under other goals on the other. The principal advantage of a discrete gender goal lies in according ‘headline’ status to the issue; integration in other goals, however, offers the potential to ‘mainstream’ gender coverage in key substantive areas. The concomitant disadvantages of these approaches are potentially ‘siloing’ gender issues and dilution of focus respectively. The use of indicators and their limitations, particularly in light of current levels of information and communications technology and data challenges are interrogated. The chapter concludes by examining the implications of the international community’s broader evasion of the interface between goals regimes and the global human rights agenda for gender issues. Discussion centres around the fact that, as gender concerns now enjoy strong coverage in human rights law, along with the legal status that this invokes, divorcing the SDGs regime from such protection stands to act to the particular disadvantage of women, negating a key route to securing accountability for the impacts of state action/inaction on the ground.

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Helmut Philipp Aust and Anél du Plessis

Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sets out to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030. Together with the New Urban Agenda adopted at the Habitat III conference in Quito in 2016, SDG 11 is the latest emanation of the thickening layer of international normative guidance on questions of sustainable development and urban governance. This chapter argues that Goal 11 of the SDGs is a clear expression of the urban turn, as it were, in global governance. The contribution contextualizes the setting in which SDG 11 is inserted as well as the aspirations of Goal 11. The chapter also unearths the inherent contradictions of SDG 11 since not all of its sub-goals will be attainable at the same time and without negatively impacting on some of the other SDGs. For instance, the notions of ‘safety’ and ‘inclusiveness’ might well conflict with each other. The chapter concludes with a critical view on some of the general implementation risks and challenges associated with SDG 11.

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Nadia Sánchez Castillo-Winckels

This chapter explores public participation in the governance of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, also known as ocean global commons or ocean commons. In particular, the role of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is examined in enhancing public access to information and participation in institutions managing these resources: regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The argument is that the SDGs contribute to developing a new conception of ocean commons governance by emphasizing civil society participation in achieving sustainable development. This argument is based on two reasons. First, the SDGs encourage institutions at all levels to strengthen public access to information and participation in decision making in order to increase transparency, accountability and effectiveness of their administration. Second, the study of public participation in RFMOs and the ISA shows that the existing conception of ocean commons governance primarily involves states and industry organizations and restricts access to civil society. The chapter concludes that the SDGs promote a new understanding of ocean commons governance in which public participation is integral to the governing process and necessary to ensure institutional transparency, accountability and effectiveness for sustainable development.

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Owen McIntyre

While legal frameworks will inevitably play a central role in shaping the actions necessary for realisation of SDG 6, which commits the international community to ensuring universal availability of adequate water and sanitation services and sustainable management of the water resources on which such services depend, it is equally clear that the values set out in SDG 6 will significantly influence the continuing evolution, development and implementation of relevant legal measures and approaches. In order to illustrate this close, two-way inter-relationship, this chapter explores the mutually supportive approaches embodied in international water and human rights law and in SDG 6. The former fields of normativity have already developed rules and principles intended to promote broad rights to water and sanitation and to require environmental protection of shared international water resources and the ecosystems dependent thereon. However, articulation and formal adoption of SDG 6 represents formal universal political commitment to such values, which can only serve to legitimise and inform such norms.

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Duncan French and Louis J. Kotzé

This chapter provides the context, a broad introduction and the essence of each of the chapters in the book.

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Nathan Cooper and Duncan French

As the final Global Goal, SDG 17’s principal function is to establish partnerships in support of the achievement of the other Sustainable Development Goals. It includes targets in such areas as overseas development assistance, debt sustainability, technology transfer, capacity building, and international trade. It reflects a pattern set in the Millennium Development Goals, where the final goal is also the most instrumental, in that case MDG 8, which sought to establish a ‘Global Partnership for Development’. SDG 17 underscores the importance of cooperation in the attainment of global development, recognising more broadly that partnerships are fundamental to the achievement of sustainable development. And yet SDG 17 also reveals many of the contradictions within the primarily voluntarist nature of the international community’s approach to development. SDG 17 is reflective of an approach that possesses strong moral injunction but weak normative commitment. Thus, the chapter provides a critical analysis of SDG 17, focusing on three distinct issues. First, whether on their own terms, the targets within the Goal will contribute to the achievement of effective partnerships, or whether the systemic hurdles towards institutional reform remain as great as they always have done. Secondly, how far SDG 17 weakens still further the normative argument as to the existence of a positive obligation in international law on development cooperation. And thirdly, in the context of seeking to achieve the right to water in a domestic setting, how far SDG 17 provides legal certainty to such partnerships, especially those involving civil society. The chapter concludes that while SDG 17 promotes partnerships it has not given sufficient guidance to states in implementing them. The innate voluntarism of the cooperation that supports the Global Goals ultimately puts at risk their effective attainment, and there thus remains a necessity for the development of supportive legal frameworks.

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Louis J. Kotzé

States agreed on and committed to the achievement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. If one accepts that the SDGs are the roadmap for the world to achieve sustainable development until 2030, and if one accepts that the only way human and non-human life on Earth can continue is if demands to sustain all life can never exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth, then the following question arises: are the SDGs appropriate and able to guide humanity along a road of sustainability that is possible ad infinitum? To answer this question, this chapter offers a critique of the SDGs through three contemporary analytical lenses of (i) the Anthropocene, (ii) the planetary boundaries theory, and (iii) the Earth system governance theory. The hypothesis is that the SDGs, when they are critically evaluated through these three new-millennial analytical paradigms, are not a suitable roadmap for the type of truly sustainable present and future development that must ensure the continuation of all (not only human) life on Earth. The main reason for this is because despite their reference to, and shallow alignment with, the three-pillared approach to sustainable development (environmental, social and economic concerns), the SDGs mostly push environmental interests to the periphery of their concern while prioritising human-focused social and economic development at the expense of global Earth system integrity. This simply amounts, at best, to a continuation of the Millennium Development Goals approach and experience, with the SDGs likely to exacerbate Anthropocene-inducing conditions and to push humanity further across planetary boundaries.

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Lynda M. Collins

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a blueprint for a new world. It is a comprehensive and ambitious vision of development that seeks to eradicate long-standing social ills including poverty, hunger, water scarcity, unemployment, inequality (both local and global), corruption and illiteracy. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) articulated in Agenda 2030 have arguably become the primary unifying narrative among global actors including governments, international agencies (such as the World Bank), civil society and multinational business. Despite their laudable goals, the SDGs have received a mixed reception amongst human rights advocates. Some see the adoption of global goals as a weaker alternative to human rights that threatens to undermine the robust, legally binding standards embodied in the human rights system. For others, the SDGs represent the world’s best hope of realizing human rights for all, and particularly for the world’s poorest. While much will depend on implementation efforts, this chapter will argue that the SDGs have the potential to advance and even out-perform human rights, especially in the areas of economic, social and environmental rights. While debates may persist regarding the merits of each approach, there can be no doubt that the SDGs and human rights share a common centre in their concern for human happiness and well-being. At least in one respect, the SDGs attempt a crucial task that has so far proven to be beyond the reach of international human rights law; they seek to preserve the natural systems on which all human rights of future generations will depend.

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Sam Adelman

This chapter provides an existential critique of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) based upon two main arguments. First, growth-driven development is intrinsically ecologically unsustainable because it destroys ecosystems and breaches planetary boundaries. The SDGs are the latest incarnation of sustainable development, a concept widely criticised as oxymoronic because it erroneously fosters the illusion of combining endless economic growth on a finite planet, social justice, and environmental protection. Second, the SDGs perpetuate an anthropocentric conception of development and sustainability antithetical to effective responses to the rupture of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. The chapter concludes that the model of development envisaged in the SDGs is unlikely to enhance ecological sustainability and thus threatens to increase impoverishment.