Whether preserving a forest, changing the tax code, or approving a new medical treatment, the impacts of government choices spill over into other arenas. Sometimes this is a bonus: improving girls’ education pays economic and environmental dividends, while public transit doesn’t just reduce congestion, it can help cut down on air pollution and encourage healthy physical activity. However, policies can also work at cross-purposes: many countries with ambitious plans for renewable energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions still heavily subsidize the use of fossil fuels. The key question is how to foster sustainable development, within and among different countries, while avoiding policies that cancel each other out.

Last year, 193 countries agreed on 17 ambitious, universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This transformative agenda brings together the ingredients for development that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. However, no individual goal can be achieved without help from the others, so countries must holistically embrace the SDGs. An essential tool to assist countries this year as they prepare their plans to implement the agenda is a concept known as policy coherence for sustainable development (PCSD).

What’s New? Sustainability

The idea of policy coherence for development is not new: for over a decade, this concept has urged national governments to reflect on how their policies affect poor people outside their borders. For example, a country’s domestic agricultural policies to support local farmers can undermine that same country’s efforts to improve the lives of farmers abroad. So coherent policies for development are essential, but they don’t go far enough to achieve the 2030 Agenda because they do not necessarily consider environmental impacts that can reverse progress.

By adding sustainability to the concept of policy coherence, national policymakers must work across the three dimensions of sustainable development – environmental, social and economic – to confront domestic and international inconsistencies head on and change the way they operate. Doing so necessitates collaboration across a greater range of policy areas, ensuring that disparate government ministries are working together. Rather than policy making in isolation, they have to consider synergies, trade-offs as well as the transboundary impact of their policies, and how to engage with civil society, towards global sustainable development.

The SDGs are a built-in laboratory for policy coherence for sustainable development, because so many of the goals and targets are intertwined. Let’s say a country aims to halt deforestation by 2020 as specified in Goal 15. Doing so supports the climate change targets under Goal 13, but it requires the strong governance structures called for in Goal 16, a shift to sustainable levels of consumption and production as set out in Goal 12, the implementation of policies to improve food security under Goal 2, and energy access called for in Goal 7. As countries approach the 17 SDGs, they will need to assess where current policies support or impinge on progress towards sustainable development – both at home and abroad – and make some tough choices.

Getting on Board

Achieving policy coherence is a complex task, but a wide range of countries are leading the way. Sweden’s Policy for Global Development requires regular reports on progress toward greater coherence, and all ministries have been directed to formulate SDG action plans that take PCSD into account. Colombia has mapped the SDGs to its national policies to identify where institutional and policy changes are needed. Indonesia requires that all ministries demonstrate how their policies will advance the government’s overarching Green Planning and Budgeting Strategy. And when work started on Uganda’s Second National Development Plan, the National Planning Authority (NPA) announced its intention to fully integrate the SDGs once adopted. Still, we will need more to build momentum.

Governments must change existing models of decision-making, giving and receiving aid, and governance to transform how our interdependent economies, societies and ecosystems function. Many countries have formed representative bodies composed of multiple ministries to stimulate discussion on how to implement development plans in line with the SDGs. That is an important step, but there is a critical need to go beyond sharing information, and work collectively towards common goals. Aligning national policies with international frameworks is difficult – and some countries will showcase their early progress at the United Nations this July – but without this alignment, we will lose a once-in-a-generation opportunity to integrate sustainability into development. There’s no time like the present to leave no one behind, now or in future generations.

WRI will analyze what success looks like, what we can learn from failures, and highlight these early experiences to build a knowledge base of what it takes for governments to coherently, cohesively make the transition to the 2030 Agenda. We are organizing an auditorium panel session on June 16 at this year’s European Development Days in Brussels, and a ministerial side event on July 18 during the High-Level Political Forum in New York, to discuss initial findings.