The SDGs negotiations mostly expressed a conservative approach with respect to global economic structures, and a reformist orientation to global political institutions. I detail the representation of the four discourses below.
Mainstream sustainability, characterized by a conservative orientation to the global economy and political institutions, represented 22% of the texts delivered in the SDGs negotiations.
Economically, the negotiations consistently emphasized the need to sustain economic growth and envisioned environmental sustainability as one of the means to achieve that goal. In this view, the existing liberal economic system, based on material growth, profit, and competition, is compatible with environmental sustainability policies whenever these encompass a decoupling of productivity, pollution, and resource use. The energy discussions called for the following solutions to “ensure economic growth in a low-carbon economy: concentrate on clean energy deployment as a key sector; price carbon to fund economic development and just transition; equip workers with the skills needed to compete in a 21st century economy” (UN 2014). Similarly, the discussions on a climate goal emphasized the market opportunity that a shift toward climate-resilient growth and a low-carbon economy would bring about, stressing that “addressing climate change is necessary to promote sustainable economic growth and protect development gains” (UN 2014).
Such co-benefits between environmental sustainability and economic growth were also reflected in the measures discussed to promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production, which would allow leapfrogging to a more resource-efficient, profitable, and cleaner growth, whenever such growth is decoupled from resource use and environmental degradation. Such conception was also reflected in the discussions on biodiversity, which highlighted the need to preserve the health of ecosystems to keep producing services essential to sustain economic growth. As a result, the SDGs negotiations mostly conveyed a relationship to the natural world based on externality, whereby nature is primarily conceived as a resource that provides services for the benefit of economic growth and development, such as illustrated in the corpus:
Biodiversity is a vital asset in global and local economies. […] The world’s fisheries employ more than 180 million people, with the global marine fish catch worth US$ 70 to 80 billion per year. Overall, marine ecosystem services are valued at US $4.5–6.7 trillion annually (UN 2014).
Overall, the SDGs negotiations showed a widespread mobilization of terms like “economic growth,” “green economy,” or “green growth” (129 occurrences), which further demonstrates that the negotiations conveyed a conservative approach to the global economy.
Politically, however, the conservative orientation toward global political institutions that characterizes mainstream sustainability was poorly represented in the SDGs negotiations. This ultimately explains the limited representation of mainstream sustainability. Although these negotiations stressed that actors and institutions already endowed with power and authority remain essential to address global environmental sustainability challenges, only 27 texts out of 122 underlined that existing institutions and norms should not be reformed to promote a more equalizing world order.
Progressive sustainability held a dominant position in the SDGs negotiations, with 70% of the texts expressing such a discourse. Economically, the view that progressive sustainability accepts the neoliberal parameters of the global economy was highly salient in the negotiations. Conversely to mainstream sustainability, however, progressive sustainability calls for a reform of existing institutions and norms dealing with environmental sustainability with an equalizing objective.
Progressive sustainability was reflected in the framing of the issues and solutions related to energy, sustainable consumption and production, climate action, and biodiversity. For instance, the discussions on energy depicted access to secure and affordable energy as a catalyst for improving health and transportation services, promoting education, combating poverty and hunger, and improving livelihoods and shared prosperity. These discussions insisted on the equity considerations of energy access, which, when unequal, represents a serious constraint on inclusive development. Similarly, the discussions on sustainable consumption and production referred to current unsustainable, inequitable, and unbalanced global consumption patterns as a constraint to inclusive development efforts. Indeed, if existing institutions and norms do not catalyze ambitious action to depart from a business-as-usual scenario, the most marginalized actors will have increasing difficulties to access scarcer and more expensive natural resources, thus exacerbating existing inequalities. The following excerpt illustrates this approach:
[One of the key issues] to framing our approach to SCP [sustainable consumption and production] is the sheer inequity in the consumption of world’s resources. […] 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty account for only 1% of world’s consumption of resources, while the richest 1 billion people consume 72%. The ecological footprint in developed countries increased from 3.8 global hectares in 1961 to 5.3 global hectares in 2007, representing an increase of 39%. In contrast, the per capita ecological footprint in developing countries over the same period increased by 28% from 1.4 to 1.8 global hectares (UN 2014).
This framing resulted in calls to establish “a new political and economic architecture […] to promote values of social inclusion, equity and solidarity” (UN 2014).
The discussions on a climate goal also pictured the consequences of climate change (i.e., sea level rise and extreme weather events) as threats to inclusive and equitable development. As those who suffer from climate change impacts contribute the least to the global concentration of greenhouse gas emissions, one of the rationales for climate action conveyed in the discussions was the restoration of equity. Similarly, the discussions on biodiversity emphasized the positive correlation between the unsustainable management of natural resources, and poverty and inequality aggravation. The solutions contemplated to address environmental sustainability challenges reflected such equity considerations. Publicly funded technology and knowledge transfer were consistently emphasized to reduce inequalities, as well as the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR)Footnote 3 in addressing climate change and promoting sustainable consumption and production.
Progressive sustainability was also reflected in the penetration of specific terminology related to a reformist approach of the global political order toward equalization. The SDGs negotiations indeed showed a widespread use of terms such as “well-being” (72 occurrences) and “peoples’ livelihoods” (73 occurrences), as well as “equality” and “equity” (80 occurrences), which emphasize the need to promote inclusive development.
Interestingly, multi-stakeholder “partnerships” (29 occurrences) or “participation” in policymaking and implementation (22 occurrences) were significantly less mobilized in the negotiations, even though the sustainability arena has been identified in the literature as being particularly conducive to collaborative governance (Andonova 2010; Benner et al. 2004; Pattberg and Widerberg 2016). As one would expect in such an intergovernmental UN setting based on state membership, the political orientation of SDGs negotiations was typically state-centric, with mild recognition of the importance of inclusive representation, participation, and empowerment of a broader range of non-state actors in global policymaking, such as local communities, indigenous peoples, youth, and NGOs, as well as future generations and non-humans. As a result, the SDGs negotiations mainly expressed the view that public authorities should lead the transformation toward environmental sustainability. Here, the role of public authorities is central and goes beyond the mere regulation of the market, as regulations (e.g., emissions standards), publicly funded technology, and knowledge transfer are emphasized to address inequalities of existing power structures and respond to global environmental challenges. This approach highly resonates with Maarten Hajer’s concept of “cockpit-ism” which he defines as the illusion that top-down steering by governments and IGOs alone can address global sustainability problems. He and his co-authors have argued that although key documents of the SDGs process, including the OWG’s draft proposal, do refer to the importance of the active involvement of all relevant stakeholders, they address some of these stakeholders such as business, cities, and civil society only to a limited extent (Hajer et al. 2015).
A limits discourse
Only 2% of the texts in the SDGs negotiations expressed a discourse that emphasizes the need to reorient society to stay within safe planetary limits.
Economically, a limits discourse in the SDGs negotiations either explicitly mentioned that an economy based on accumulation and profit is not compatible with environmental sustainability, or advocated for solutions to address sustainability challenges that imply a fundamental reorientation of economic development. These include, for instance, a strict cap on the use of depletable resources, as well as the allocation of a non-transferable share of the global footprint by person and country to contain and reduce human’s impact on its environment.
In addition, alternative concepts based on a reform of neoliberal global economic structures were almost absent from the discussions. For example, there are only two references to a sufficient economy, which promotes an economic development based on moderation and self-sufficiency. Similarly, a discourse that calls for development that is not growth, rejecting GDP (4 occurrences) as the only indicator to measure human progress and considering the ecological footprint (13 occurrences) or planetary boundaries (10 occurrences), was underrepresented.
Politically, the idea that existing institutions and norms are considered adequate to reorient development away from a growth-based model was underrepresented. The discussions that conveyed a limits discourse particularly emphasized state action, within the framework of existing international governance arrangements, to steer transformation toward frugal societies.
Finally, radical sustainability was represented in the SDGs negotiations, yet to a very limited extent. Only 6% of the texts called for an overhaul of the existing liberal economic system beyond a primary focus on economic growth, while also urging for reformed political institutions that promote equity not only between countries but also to a broader range of actors, including non-state actors, future generations, and non-humans.
The texts that expressed radical sustainability seek a fundamental shift of economic development away from material consumption, competition, and growth. For instance, the discussions on energy stated there is a “need [for] leadership to transition from a growth-focused economy, one that obsesses over profit at the expense of the Earth, to a just, equitable, and sustainable economy with a world dependent on sustainable energy” (UN 2014).
However, as previously argued, such reformist approach to the global economy was underrepresented. For instance, there was only one reference to the Buen Vivir concept, which calls for an ecologically balanced and culturally sensitive community-based development that promotes harmony between human beings and nature. An economy based on this concept would require a significant overhaul of capitalist modes of production and consumption, based on a substantial reduction of consumption and the development of small-scale production.
Politically, the reorientation of current economic development requires a redistribution of power, from the global and governmental level to the local and non-governmental level, to allow for genuine participation by marginalized and affected people, as typified in the following:
The TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and other state-driven investment agreements continue to alienate us from our indigenous lands by binding us to transnational corporations through agreements signed by the state of Chile, and not by the Rapa Nui people who are the proper rights-holders. (UN 2014)
Similarly, this approach rejects market-based instruments because they further marginalize locally affected civil society actors from policymaking and implementation. For instance, the corpus mentions that “financialization of biodiversity threatens communities […] because it turns nature and land into financial, tradeable assets and because it favors institutions and wealthy landowners best able to maneuver and exploit complex financial markets” (UN 2014).
However, the reform toward a more equitable global political order that a radical sustainability discourse endeavors was poorly represented in the SDGs negotiations. Even though most texts in SDGs negotiations called for a reorientation of existing institutions and norms to even out inequalities, they conveyed a narrow vision of equity according to which equalization should primarily be fostered between developed and developing countries, through the equity principle of CBDR. Conversely, a broader understanding of equity that recognizes the importance of the participation or representation of a larger number of actors (e.g., global poor, non-state actors, non-humans) in developing effective responses to global sustainability challenges was almost absent from the negotiations.
Finally, the underrepresentation of radical sustainability is reflected in the framing of the relationship to the natural world. Indeed, a conception of a non-hierarchical relationship between humans and nature, whereby societies are integrated into and interconnected with a holistic natural world, was poorly reflected. For instance, “ecosystem services,” which refer to the benefits people obtain from the use of ecosystems (i.e., food and water provision, flood and disease control, recreational and cultural benefits) and depicts a relationship between human and natural worlds based on externality, are mentioned 67 times throughout the corpus. Conversely, the expressions “ecosystem approach”Footnote 4 (9 occurrences), “global commons” (12 occurrences), or “Mother Earth” (4 occurrences), which reflect integration, are significantly less present.
In sum, discursive diversity in the SDGs negotiations was limited. A progressive sustainability discourse dominated the discussions on environmental goals. Most of the texts did not question the existing parameters of the global economy, whereby development is essentially growth-based and nature is external to human societies. Additionally, most of the texts called for a reorientation of the global political order that evens out inequalities between developed and developing countries to achieve environmental sustainability, yet with limited recognition of the need to foster vertical equalization between different stakeholders.
Beyond the underrepresentation or overrepresentation of certain discourses lies another critical question which informs whether the SDGs negotiations were discursively democratic: have IGOs, governments, civil society, and business engaged in different discourses on sustainability? The next section addresses this question by assessing inter-discourse engagement.
I found that inter-discourse engagement, that is, how much actors individually or collectively engaged in different discourses, was uneven in the SDGs negotiations: while most actors engaged in progressive sustainability, the other discourses were actor-specific. Business, and to a lesser extent, developed countries, mainly engaged in mainstream sustainability. All the texts from business actors reflected mainstream sustainability, while more than half of the texts from developed countries reflected this discourse. Conversely, < 5% of the texts from developing countries and civil society expressed mainstream sustainability.
Therefore, a coalition between business and developed countries emerged to advance the framing of the transition toward environmental sustainability as an opportunity to foster economic growth. For instance, statements from business actors presented solutions to ensure long-lasting economic growth in a low-carbon economy, such as “the scaling up and implementation of development, commercialization, and widespread dissemination of technologies and innovative services” (UN 2014). Similarly, statements delivered by the European Union consistently emphasized the co-benefits, in terms of wealth and job creation, that the transition to ecologically sustainable economies would bring about. Statements delivered by the United States, Canada, and Israel also emphasized the role of the private sector as the leading agent responsible to foster technology improvements and innovation, both considered critical to catalyze such transition.
A progressive sustainability discourse was mostly mobilized by developing countries (97% of texts) and IGOs (89%), and to a lesser extent, civil society (54%). However, it was least mobilized by business, as none of their texts expressed progressive sustainability, and to a lesser extent by developed countries (45%). Most stakeholders thus concurred on the fact that environmental sustainability and economic growth are compatible, though a redistribution of power is necessary to achieve an equalizing and inclusive human development.
The principle of equity, central to the discourse of progressive sustainability, was highly salient in the discussions on climate, sustainable consumption and production, and biodiversity. Specifically, civil society and developing countries consistently referred to the equity principle of CBDR to even out inequalities in the current global political order. For instance, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka frequently stated that “any international response to climate change must be in full accordance with the principles of equity and CBDR” (UN 2014). Conversely, statements from developed countries (e.g., the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) advocated that the equity principle of CBDR should not be applied to the SDGs negotiations.
The participation of non-state actors in policymaking is another key feature of progressive sustainability. However, it was more frequently mobilized by civil society, with 17 out of 22 references throughout the corpus, than by developed or developing countries who advocated for higher inclusion of non-state actors in decision-making in only five texts. These include two statements from developed countries (e.g., the troikas of Montenegro and Slovenia; France, Germany, and Switzerland) and three statements from developing countries (e.g., the Pacific Small-Islands Developing States and the troikas of Brazil and Nicaragua; Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador). This confirms that the equalization of the global political order conveyed in the SDGs negotiations was mostly horizontal, encompassing a reduction of inequalities primarily between states, with little recognition of the importance of empowering a broader range of actors. As recent research has shown, rather than being used as a means of contestation and democratization in policymaking, participation in the UN has become increasingly instrumentalized and used as a means of implementation of projects to conceal other types of institutional change based on efficiency considerations and neoliberal values (Mert 2019, Utting and Zammit 2009).
Ideas consistent with discourses of limits and radical sustainability were mostly mobilized by civil society. For instance, 43% of civil society texts expressed radical sustainability. For instance, the statements of the Children and Youth Major Group and the Commons Cluster, a civil society network consisting of individuals and NGOs, disputed the “accumulation economy.” Specifically, they argued that current economic structures “inevitably encroach upon the ability of our economy to provide basic goods and services and meet basic human needs” and called for a strict cap on the use of depletable resources, and for ecocide to be considered as a crime against peace (UN 2014). Also, statements from civil society more than any other actor personified Nature. The Commons Cluster for instance stated that “no entity however powerful they may seem to be can survive without support of Nature herself” (UN 2014).
Also, governments from developed and developing countries referred to concepts associated with radical sustainability or a limits discourse. One statement from Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador mentioned the Buen Vivir concept during the discussions on sustainable consumption and production, recalling that a change of mentality is necessary to initiate the transformation toward sustainable consumption and production “to achieve sustainable development in accordance with the Buen Vivir paradigm” (UN 2014). Similarly, Poland and Romania referred to a limits discourse with the concept of a sufficient economy, stating that the international community needs to rethink its societal objectives, moving from a focus on wealth, growth, and efficiency, toward an emphasis on well-being, quality, and sufficiency. In turn, none of the texts from business and IGOs expressed these discourses.
Yet there were cleavages within groups of actors regarding their associations with specific discourses. For instance, the Women Major Group, the Indigenous Peoples Major Group, the Commons Cluster, and the Mining Working Group engaged more in limits or radical discourses than other civil society actors, whose statements either conveyed a mainstream or progressive discourse (e.g., NGO Major Group, Science and Technology Major Group). Also, within developing countries, only Latin-American states advanced radical economic approaches and an interconnected relationship between human and natural worlds, as the intervention of Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador during the discussions on biodiversity suggests:
With the expansion of human activities for development, forced by the markets and the interests of capital, without respecting the limits of regeneration of nature, the extension and internal connectivity of native ecosystems decreases sharply, fragmenting the habitat and accelerating biodiversity loss, eventually putting at risk the integrity of ecosystems. (UN 2014)
The mobilization of specific terminology across actors further reveals uneven, if not low, inter-discourse engagement. Business and developed countries were more likely to mobilize terms that characterize mainstream sustainability. For instance, business actors strongly mobilized the idea that industrialization should remain a key feature of economic development under conditions of environmental sustainability, with a χ2 amounting to 8.2. Similarly, “economic growth” was extensively mobilized by developed countries (χ2 = 2.7), while it was less likely to be mobilized by IGOs (χ2 = – 2.3) and civil society (χ2 = − 2.6). Additionally, developed countries were more likely to mobilize the “green economy” concept (χ2 = 1.7) and less likely to mobilize the equity principle of CBDR (χ2 = − 1.5) than other actors.
Civil society and developing countries were more likely to mobilize terms that characterize a progressive sustainability discourse. For instance, developing countries (χ2 = 1) and civil society actors (χ2 = 1.6) mobilized the CBDR principle more than other actors. However, developing countries did not strongly engage in a discourse advocating for a reform of the global political order beyond the recognition of CBDR. For instance, the term “equity” was more likely to be mobilized by civil society than developing countries, with a χ2 of 2.6 for civil society, whereas the χ2 for developing countries, though close to zero, is still negative. Also, only civil society actors emphasized human rights in the negotiations with a χ2 of 16, whereas developed countries (χ2 = − 3) and developing countries (χ2 = − 6) were those actors that least referred to it.
Finally, civil society more likely mobilized terms that characterize a limits discourse or radical sustainability. For instance, they mobilized “planetary boundaries” (χ2 = 3.3) and the “ecological footprint” (χ2 = 2.5) more than other actors. “Environmental justice” was also most specific to these actors (χ2 = 6.5), and least specific to developed countries (χ2 = − 2). Similarly, compared to developed countries (χ2 = − 3), civil society actors extensively mobilized “global commons” (χ2 = 5) and advocated that their preservation is not compatible with the existing parameters of the global economy.
Yet there are also differentiations within groups of actors. For instance, although developed countries mainly referred to “ecosystem services” (mainstream sustainability), 4 out of 9 references to an “ecosystem approach” (radical sustainability) also emanated from developed countries (i.e., the European Union; the troikas of France, Germany, and Switzerland; Norway, Denmark, and Ireland; Serbia and Montenegro). Similarly, within civil society, the “ecosystem approach” was mobilized by the Indigenous Peoples Major Group, while other actors referred to “ecosystem services” (i.e., Science and Technology Major Group, Bioregional—an internationally operating NGO working on sustainability).
In sum, inter-discourse engagement was uneven in the SDGs negotiations. Mainstream sustainability was almost exclusively specific to business actors and developed countries, while civil society and some developing countries mobilized ideas and concepts characterizing radical sustainability. Even though discourse coalitions emerged between Latin-American countries and civil society on radical sustainability, these were not successful in increasing the representation of this discourse in the shaping of the SDGs. Similarly, the discourse coalition between some developed countries (Poland and Romania) and civil society on a sufficient economy failed to increase the representation of a limits’ discourse in the SDGs negotiations. Unlike other discourses, progressive sustainability was not actor-specific. All actors except business engaged to some extent in a progressive sustainability discourse. However, the previous section has shown that in these negotiations, progressive sustainability only partially expressed the systemic political transformation that the least represented actors in policymaking endeavor. This indicates that the coalition around progressive sustainability did not relay the ideas and concepts formulated by the most marginalized actors in the negotiations.