The Curse of Round-Numbered Years

This year will be a very busy one for global environmental politics, perhaps even promising momentous milestones, or more momentous failures. Several disparate processes all have significant decisions to make this year, as mandated by decisions made years ago.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be finalized this year, to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. This will reset the global development agenda – where efforts and funds are directed.

Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are to agree to a new legally-binding instrument or “outcome with legal force” by the end of this year.

The UN Forum on Forests is to review its Global Goals on Forests and the Forest Instrument as part of its review of the intergovernmental arrangement on forests. Beneath this jargon lies a substantial decision on how – and perhaps whether – to continue the Forum and forest governance under the UN Economic and Social Council.

Years ago, delegates in completely different arenas chose a number out of the air to renew, revamp or reset their governance arrangements. Now, they are all struggling to complete this work, and figure out how these various moving parts fit together. This careful dance is the curse of a round numbered year.

The work on forests is related to the SDGs – there are SDG targets and activities explicitly on improving forest cover and livelihoods. The SDGs are related to climate change because low-carbon sustainable development is a key part of mitigating future greenhouse gas emissions and adapting the climate change impacts. Forests which are both a source of and sink for greenhouse gases, creating multiple links between forests and climate change.

The UNFF is deciding the future of (its part) of forest governance in May; the SDGs are expected in September; and the climate agreement is due in December. Likely, the steps will be reshuffled. The UNFF is the least powerful or effective (or resourced) of the three, meaning it will want to strengthen its links and work with the SDGs and climate change. Member states may do the minimum now, and wait for the other pieces to shake out.

If the other pieces fall into place, that is. The SDGs have underwent considerable consultation and hopefully seem on fairly solid footing. There is a looming debate on if there are too many SDGs, which may radically alter the number of targets and activities. So, while there is a draft out there for states and civil society to peruse and consult on, there is no guarantee that this will be the final list.

The likelihood that there will be a climate agreement is even more slim. As I’ve written before, the Paris agreement is at best going to be the beginning, not the end of the climate negotiations. There are five negotiation sessions planned, including the two weeks in Paris in December. Given the rift that remains among key states on fundamental issues, including whether the agreement should be legally binding and if all states will undertake commitments, it seems unlikely that there will be a lengthy, document outlining targets for all. Instead, the negotiations are already “bottom-up,” meaning that each state is able to determine their own actions and contributions toward controlling climate change.

Such uncertainty leave the other multilateral fora in a quandary – do they take action, knowing that the largest environmental negotiation currently underway may supercede or undercut their efforts? There are strong calls to have a special place for forests in the 2015 climate agreement. With no such strong agreement in the works, how long should others hold their breath?

It is possible that the SDGs could, by virtue of having an agreement, surpass the climate change negotiations in terms of political support, participation by key states, resources, and – most crucially – implementation of actions that have a real-world impact. As the number of climate-related activities outside the UNFCCC grows, the ability of the UNFCCC to deliver may decrease.

In part, this is the curse of the round-numbered year: others are also looking ahead, identifying strategic areas where they could engage, and, seeing weakness, others could take over your work.


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