Is the EU sidelining the SDGs in favour of the climate agenda?

Was the absorption of the multi-stakeholder platform on the SDGs into the Climate Pact a natural progression, or a premature shut down?

In 2017, the European Commission appointed a Multi-Stakeholder Platform on SDGs, which it promised would “provide a forum for exchange of best practice at local, regional, national and EU level” on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and advise the EU on delivering the 17 goals, launched two years earlier. 

It was an exciting development – coming less than a year after the creation of the High Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance, a hugely influential group that developed the thinking behind the EU’s current Action Plan on Sustainable Finance. The SDG group was bigger – with 30 members compared with HLEG’s 20 – and included Christian Thimann, then Head of Regulation, Sustainability and Insurance Foresight at Axa Group, as well as Chair of HLEG and Vice Chair of the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. It also included the CEO of Rabobank, Wiebe Draijer, and was chaired by Frans Timmermans, who was First Vice President of the European Commission at the time. 

“It was described as Europe at its best, with all the colours of the rainbow from BusinessEurope on one side, to Birdlife Europe on the other,” says Jan Noterdame, Senior Advisor on EU Affairs at CSR Europe, the business network for corporate social responsibility and one of the members of the SDG group. “The platform was the first strong signal that Europe can demonstrate maturity, with a group that is not just pushing a ball around. Instead there is a capacity for dialogue that produces and co-creates new policies.”

The group contributed to the Commission’s Reflection Paper Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030, arguably influencing the political guidelines of President von der Leyen and the European Green Deal. But, compared with the loud trumpets and concrete results of HLEG’s recommendations – which have led to the creation of an EU taxonomy, new disclosure rules, regulation for ESG and benchmarks and much more – its impact has been underwhelming.   

Despite this, its mandate was not renewed at the end of last year, with the Platform’s Management Committee noting in its final meeting that its main tasks had been “fulfilled to a large extent.” Link: 

RI has learnt its agenda will be absorbed into the European Climate Pact, a part of the European Green Deal set to be launched in December to inform and foster cooperation between communities and organisations on climate action. But is this a credible new home to take the SDG agenda forward? 

Noterdame thinks so – although he acknowledges concerns that narrowing the focus solely to climate could see the broader objectives of the SDGs get lost. The language of the SDGs is not explicitly used in the Climate Pact, but, he says, there is a growing understanding that climate change can only be addressed by considering wider ESG issues – forming a “red thread from the platform to the Climate Pact”. If that link is acknowledged, the SDGs will still be addressed in the new mechanisms, he believes. 

But other former members of the Platform are less optimistic.

In one of the final meetings, “many Members considered that there was a need for the Platform to go on beyond its current mandate and to have a role in the preparation and implementation of the future EU Strategy for the UN 2030 Agenda.” Indeed, Patrizia Heidegger, Director of Global Policies and Sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau and a member of the SDG group, said it felt like the group was simply “closed down”, with the new Commission allowing the European Green Deal to completely dominate the sustainability agenda, risking the SDGs being sidelined. 

In an ideal scenario, Heidegger says the Platform’s mandate would be overhauled and improved, making way for a new “SDG Forum” with better, more diverse representation from civil society, including vulnerable groups. It could then serve as the Commission’s advisory and monitoring board for the SDGs.  

RI recently conducted an SDG series, highlighting how much progress globally has been made and what still needs to be done on the road to 2030.