The Sustainable Development Goals and the United States
Tony Pipa - Brookings Institution
Brookings Institution
Current Issue
three wind turbines behind solar panels

In September 2015, in stirring remarks at the United Nations (U.N.), Pres. Barack Obama committed the United States to achieve by 2030 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an interrelated set of goals that comprise the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development agreed to by all 193 U.N. Member States.1 Granted, much of his speech focused on the importance the United States places on supporting development internationally, emphasizing its commitments to stop the “grinding poverty that so many experience every day around the world.” Yet he also embraced the universality of the SDGs, conceding the implications of growing inequality in the United States and stressing that “all of our nations have work to do.”2 Even if most of his insights were weighted toward global issues, the message was still clear: the SDGs also apply to us.

However, since the countdown to 2030 started in January 2016, multiple events have complicated and compromised this commitment. The 2016 election of President Donald Trump and his “America First” foreign policy threw multilateral solutions into disfavor. Without disavowing the goals completely, the Administration basically ignored them as having any meaning for the United States, especially in domestic policy. As the Biden Administration seeks to engineer an economic transformation during the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has doubled down on far-reaching federal leadership but has yet to express interest in, or align its objectives to, the SDGs.

The SDGs have a low level of awareness by the general public, and also suffer from a perception in some policy circles that they represent a feel-good global agenda with limited ability to impact U.S. problems and history. At the same time, many U.S. corporate leaders, investors, mayors, university and foundation presidents, and advocates have embraced the SDGs as a blueprint for action on social issues. Yet, at least within the federal government, the SDGs are still receiving limited attention as a policy framework with relevance and value for shaping and driving its response to U.S. domestic challenges.

Adopting the common language of the SDGs, and transparently measuring U.S. progress toward the Agenda 2030 targets, could provide the basis for mobilizing wide-ranging partnerships and attracting additional policy attention and allies for the Administration’s domestic objectives. It could also help rebuild U.S. credibility on the global stage as the Biden Administration reenters and seeks to reestablish U.S. engagement within key international alliances. This overview explores the stance of the United States regarding the SDGs and its domestic policy priorities, and provides a set of policy recommendations for making the SDGs meaningful for U.S. domestic progress.

The United States and the Creation of the SDGs: A Brief History

It took the United States some time to warm to the idea of the SDGs and especially their universal application, but eventually it actively engaged and sought to be a constructive force in the negotiations. Despite President Obama’s commitment in September 2015, the United States has yet to fully implement this commitment.

The administration of George W. Bush had mostly ignored the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of commitments launched in 2000 that preceded and set the stage for the SDGs. Those goals were directed at poverty and related issues in developing countries, setting benchmarks for reaching a basic level of human and social well-being by 2015.3 The MDGs were seen by donor and recipient countries alike as a blueprint for foreign aid—how it should be directed and spent, and how its results should be measured—but even so, they still proved too doctrinaire for the Administration. Thus the United States, while not opposing their aspirations, remained mostly on the sidelines through the first eight years of the MDGs’ 15-year tenure.

By the time of Obama’s presidency, however, the characteristics that had come to define U.S. international development assistance aligned quite well with the approach of the MDGs. For example, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the President’s Malaria Initiative, both signature Bush initiatives, set precise quantitative targets, emphasized rigorous data collection and measurement, and stayed narrowly focused on one particular issue.4

The Obama Administration used the same playbook in launching its own major global initiative on food insecurity, Feed the Future.5 Given that all these U.S. priorities were reflected in the MDGs, and that both the United States and the U.N. emphasized quantitative, time-bound targets, the formal commitment by the Obama Administration in 2009 to have the United States explicitly support the MDGs was natural—and noncontroversial.

While not all the MDGs were achieved by their end date of 2015, the world did indeed meet several ambitious targets—a 50% reduction in extreme poverty among them—and made significant progress on several others. After 2009, the newfound U.S. seriousness about the MDGs served as an accelerator on several targets. For example, once the United States homed in on reducing preventable child mortality as a particular priority, it led a charge to analyze where the global burden was heaviest and organized a call to action co-led with India and Ethiopia, in collaboration with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).6 It changed its own strategy, focusing its efforts in 24 priority countries that together accounted for more than 70% of child and maternal deaths.7 Later estimates would suggest that these efforts resulted in more than 500,000 extra lives being saved over two years.8

Amid this backdrop the United States entered into discussions at the U.N. to define the successor set of goals, sensing an opportunity to continue to elevate quantitative targets, regular and transparent measurement of outcomes, and time-bound end dates as powerful tools to mobilize coordinated global action on its own global development priorities.

Preliminary processes at the U.N. added new considerations and requirements that required a shift in the U.S. mindset. In the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Earth Summit, nations had unanimously agreed for the first time to work for and achieve sustainable development, a framework for reconciling economic and social development with environmental protection. Their basic objective was to foster societal well-being for present and future generations in all countries. Many Member States made a push out of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 to develop goals that more intentionally and robustly integrated issues of environmental sustainability. Thus momentum began to include goals related to issues that were under consideration, such as climate change, biodiversity, oceans, and sustainable production and consumption (and these were ultimately added). The impetus to elevate environmental issues created momentum to add other considerations that were absent from the MDGs, including a stronger focus on economic issues, inequality, peace, and justice.

The United States raised some concerns regarding the impetus to widen the agenda. With the addition of new issues related to sustainability and inequality, the goals overall, and in particular those related to global poverty and other dimensions of basic human development, risked becoming broad and imprecise. From the U.S. perspective, this could dilute their mobilizing capability and overall impact.

The sequence of U.N. processes also created a larger political challenge. With negotiations on the new global development goals set to achieve resolution just months before the much-anticipated Conference of Parties on climate change in Paris in December 2015, the United States was determined that nothing in the SDG process or negotiations would jeopardize its diplomacy and ambitions for Paris, which took precedence for the president and the Administration.

Yet, as the process evolved, it became clear that a consensus was emerging that the new goals should define a broader and more ambitious set of goals that represented a level of well-being to which any society aspires—and that none had fully yet achieved. Thus many Member States began advocating for these to be considered “universal” goals, to be applied and achieved by developed and developing countries alike.

Similar to many other high-income countries, the orientation of the United States during its engagement in these negotiations was decidedly international, led by the State Department in conjunction with the National Security Council (NSC). The bulk of the primary inputs for U.S. positions came from evidence collected by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other U.S. government global development programs, reflecting lessons and experience from U.S. investments overseas. The primary objective of the United States was to ensure the goals would be useful tools to mobilize collective action on its global development priorities.

Once it became clear that a commitment to universal application had gained momentum among major coalitions within the U.N., the NSC engaged the leadership at the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC). The DPC undertook an analysis to ensure that the SDG targets were in line with domestic aspirations and did not represent any reputational risk to the United States, based on current baselines and benchmarks. It also identified signature domestic initiatives that could benefit from additional public attention. The DPC, however, never became a full partner in the interagency process that brought the different parts of the U.S. government to consensus on positions.

After several interagency discussions, key leadership at the White House came around to the idea of universality. It helped that the vehicle for adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs would be a U.N. General Assembly resolution. By definition, such a resolution is a voluntary commitment that “reflects the views of Member States [and] provides policy recommendations,” and does not have the binding force of a treaty.9

In addition, making the SDGs universal created a precedent that would enable the climate agreement at Paris to work the same way: that is, structuring the climate agreement so that, for the first time, it would entail commitments from all Parties—including developing countries—to undertake nationally determined contributions. (Previous climate agreements had put binding commitments on developed countries only.)10 For U.S. policymakers, this was a positive development and a good set up for the U.S. position for Paris. In addition, they questioned the degree to which progress in developed countries would receive much attention during the official follow-up and review processes for the SDGs, anticipating continued focus on developing countries and giving the United States some perceived leeway to keep its primary focus on international investments and global priorities.11

Ultimately, however, the idea of breaking down the silos between developed and developing countries, and framing the 2030 Agenda through the lens of sustainable development, a process already underway in every country no matter its level of income and economic power, proved both compelling and reflective of the Obama Administration’s orientation. The General Assembly reached agreement on a resolution laying out the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs in August 2015, and the United States joined the consensus. President Obama’s speech a month later at the U.N. during the initial SDG Summit cemented that commitment on behalf of the United States.

That consensus consists of 17 goals, 169 targets, and more than 230 indicators to measure progress on social, economic, and environmental benchmarks to be achieved by each country by 2030. The framework thus requires countries to pursue an evidence-based discipline of development that remains sensitive to the links among these interconnected objectives. Importantly, the goals recognize that “sustainable development” is a continuum of progress that no country has fully attained, making the goals applicable to all countries regardless of income level.

The consensus also sets out an architecture of follow-up and review to enable learning and accountability. Each year during July, the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. convenes development ministers during the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), where countries voluntarily report on their progress on the SDGs, submitting a voluntary national review (VNR). Every four years, heads of state will participate in a summit under the auspices of the U.N. General Assembly, and a team of scientists will publish a Global Sustainable Development Report to take the full measure of global progress and mobilize action to address key gaps and opportunities.

As President Obama committed the United States to this consensus, not only did his remarks reinforce the U.S. acceptance of the universality of the SDGs, but the United States ultimately chose to highlight a key domestic policy during the launch celebration. The major side event in which senior U.S. government officials participated showcased a presidential memorandum that zeroed in on access to justice in the United States (a target of Goal 16) and the formal establishment of a Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable as a presidential initiative to expand civil legal assistance for those who could not pay for it. Rather than focus on its international investments, the choice to elevate domestic policy interventions to advance progress on Goal 16 at home demonstrated that the United States saw the SDGs as applying to itself.

U.S. Implementation of the SDGs: 2016-2020

The commitment by President Obama in 2015 remains the high mark of U.S. involvement in the SDGs. Subsequent implementation by the U.S. government was short-lived and spotty at best.

To be fair, the basic internal structures of the U.S. government, which in modern times have not changed dramatically between presidential administrations, do not lend themselves to easy coordination between the national security and foreign policy apparatus and the machinery of domestic and economic policy. There is no real tradition of collaboration or partnership between the NSC and the DPC, for example. With the SDGs perceived internally as primarily a global development framework—the purview of the U.S. government’s foreign policy leadership—the U.S. domestic agencies never fully embraced the SDGs as drivers of policy relevant to their objectives.

Despite the clear commitment to the SDGs and their universality by President Obama, neither during the negotiations nor during his tenure in 2016 did the Administration ever convene Cabinet secretaries or deputies of domestic departments to provide guidance as to their roles and responsibilities for achieving the goals. Thus, even before the 2016 presidential election and subsequent transition to the Trump Administration, the goals never received high-level political attention among the domestic policy leadership despite their many touchpoints across the Administration’s domestic policy priorities and resources.

In 2016, the chief statistician within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did become actively involved in the deliberations to define the indicators that measure progress on the SDGs. Through a process guided by the U.N. Statistical Commission, Member States adopted a resolution in July 2017 to ensure countries would be providing measurements that are comparable across countries and can be aggregated to assess progress on the global targets.12 Once the U.N. set up the official reporting architecture for countries to submit their data, OMB took the step of setting up an online reporting portal for U.S. reporting.13 However, the data have not been updated regularly since 2016.

Surely this was influenced by the advent of the Trump Administration. Under its “America First” foreign policy, the United States had a strong aversion to agreements taken in multilateral settings. While the Trump Administration did not publicly reject the U.S. commitment to the SDGs or officially “pull out,” it generally ignored them as having any relevance to U.S. domestic or foreign policies. There were several instances in which the goals made brief or submerged appearances on the foreign policy side—when the Administration agreed to benign language in the 2017 G20 communiqué, for example, or initially published a crosswalk between indicators used for USAID’s new Journey to Self-Reliance policy framework and the SDGs in a footnoted appendix.14

For the most part, however, the goals were entirely absent from the U.S. government lexicon unless forced to acknowledge them in multilateral resolutions or discussions. By the beginning of 2021 and the end of the Trump Administration, the United States was the only member of the G7, the G20, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) not to have presented a VNR at the U.N. to report its progress on the SDGs.

The lack of leadership from the U.S. government does not mean American leadership on the SDGs has been absent. Some U.S. cities and states have been at the forefront worldwide of applying the SDGs locally. New York City pioneered the first voluntary local review (VLR), a local adaptation of the VNRs, and has played a key role in expanding this movement globally by signing up other cities through its VLR declaration.15 Los Angeles and Hawaii were among the first U.S. jurisdictions to launch online dashboards to measure their progress.16

American businesses, universities, philanthropies, and nonprofits have also been at the cutting edge. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, published the first ever voluntary university review worldwide.17 U.S. multinational corporations from Verizon to Walmart to Citibank have put the SDGs at the center of their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) efforts and even their corporate strategies, and private investors such as BlackRock and PIMCO are using them to assess societal impacts of their investments. The SDGs have attracted significant attention as a vetted, applicable framework as the corporate community increasingly sees its role as improving stakeholder—as opposed to shareholder—value. Thus, while the national government has looked the other way, other parts of American society have proclaimed the importance of the goals and have taken action based on their imperatives.

The United States and the SDGs Post-2021: “Build Back Better”

With the advent of the Biden Administration comes a pledge that the U.S. government will focus on building back better as it recovers from the health, economic, and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the “Build Back Better” slogan of the Biden-Harris Administration’s policy agenda echoes the very vocabulary that has been used by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres since the beginning of the pandemic—and in which he elevates the SDGs as the policy framework for achieving this.18

The Biden-Harris Administration has signaled a willingness to incorporate the SDGs into its international development priorities and strategies. Remarks by Samantha Power, former ambassador to the U.N. and current USAID administrator, at the U.N.’s HLPF in July 2021 positioned the Administration’s agenda within the framework of the SDGs.19 Yet the Administration has yet to focus on the SDGs as relevant to its domestic agenda. This despite the case that much of the Administration’s approach and framing are a good fit for the framework of the goals, both substantively and rhetorically. The four pillars of the Build Back Better agenda—stopping the COVID-19 pandemic, generating a transformative economic recovery, addressing systemic racism, and taking ambitious action on climate change—are all reflected in SDG targets and metrics.

Take, for example, the president’s Executive Order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.20 It establishes a high-level, interagency National Climate Task Force chaired by the national climate advisor. Among its tasks, in addition to reducing climate pollution and enabling better resilience to climate change impacts, are to “protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, oceans, and biodiversity; deliver environmental justice; and spur well-paying union jobs and economic growth.”21 This is a wide-ranging mandate that aligns with the breadth and interdependence of the 2030 Agenda and would benefit from its integrated framework and discipline of time-bound, quantitative benchmarks.

The disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning in the United States provoked by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer galvanized attention on the intertwined legacies of inequality and racism. Addressing these systemic impacts of this racism is another key pillar of the Administration’s domestic policy, highlighted by a stand-alone Executive Order on racial equity (as well as key provisions on climate justice within the climate Executive Order).22 The key considerations for addressing the root of these challenges—public and equitable access to health security, equitable economic mobility, justice equally applied—are embedded in Goals 3 (Good Health and Well-being), 10 (Reduced Inequalities), and 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions). The SDGs, in other words, provide a starting point for this agenda.

Given the ambitions of its domestic vision in advancing a set of interrelated social, economic, and environmental priorities, the SDGs are both politically interesting and policy relevant for the Administration. But taking advantage will require policy commitments and direction. I recommend a three-point plan below.

1. Establish Whole-of-Government Leadership

In the Biden-Harris Administration, the boundaries between the foreign policy interests and domestic agenda of the United States are becoming increasingly interconnected, especially as they relate to transnational issues. Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor under President Biden, has played a central role in encouraging U.S. diplomats and national security strategists to define the success of the country’s foreign policy in terms of its impact on the middle class. The SDGs, which commit the United States to achieving the same objectives in-country that they are promoting and encouraging countries to achieve overseas, offer another entry point for drawing the connection between the domestic and international.

Recommendations include:

The president should establish a Cabinet-level committee, co-chaired by the national security advisor and the head of the DPC, that brings together U.S. foreign and domestic policy leadership to regularly assess U.S. progress on meeting the SDGs by 2030. This committee should focus high-level attention on U.S. policy interventions and resources to address key gaps and opportunities in achieving the SDGs.

The president should direct the SDG Committee to submit a U.S. VNR at the U.N. by the soonest possible HLPF.

The SDG Committee should also identify key opportunities for action by federal departments to advance progress on the SDGs. At a minimum, these should include:

Federal agencies should map to SDG targets and metrics the Administration’s U.S. domestic climate action plan to achieve a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, to position its climate agenda within the framework of the SDGs.

Federal agencies should map to SDG targets and metrics the key components of the American Rescue Plan Act,23 the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,24 and subsequent legislation and executive actions to advance a “Build Back Better” policy agenda, to assess the comprehensive effects of these policies on social, economic, and environmental progress in the United States.

USAID, the Department of State, and other agencies should ensure that global development investments adopt the SDGs as a major policy platform for guiding and measuring the impact of U.S. bilateral and multilateral aid.

USAID, the Department of State, and other agencies should leverage opportunities on the global development calendar to advance U.S. foreign policy interests by elevating U.S. domestic commitments and innovations.

This set of recommendations aims to align and coordinate the leadership of the U.S. government on both the international and domestic aspects of the 2030 Agenda, and to maximize the benefits for U.S. interests at home and abroad. Doing so requires high-level attention and political leadership, the kind that only members of the president’s Cabinet can provide. In lieu of a national development strategy, success at home will depend upon departments prioritizing and measuring their performance against relevant targets.

A whole-of-government approach will enable the United States to break down its own internal silos, to the benefit of its larger agenda. For example, the Biden Administration made it a key foreign policy priority to host a Summit of Democracies early in its tenure, to counteract the global rise in authoritarianism and populism and demonstrate how democracies deliver for their citizens. Responsiveness to citizens and democratic governance are core to Goal 16, giving the United States a ready-made platform—given the violence experienced at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the differing perceptions as it relates to the integrity of the 2020 presidential election—to acknowledge the work needing to be done at home while promoting such an alliance abroad. This is just one case of how the SDGs provide an opportunity for the United States to project global leadership by integrating its domestic commitments, challenges, and innovations into its approach. The United States will find it much easier to reestablish its leadership internationally when it leads by its own example.

2. Adopt the Data-Driven Discipline of the SDGs to Transparently Measure Impact of Domestic Policy

The time-bound benchmarks of the SDGs force policymakers to analyze the extent to which “business as usual” will bring the United States to achieving the SDGs and identify gaps and opportunities that will require more focused action. Specific recommendations are below.

Recommendation: The interagency SDG Committee should disaggregate SDG reporting by race and sex for SDG indicators of inequality, economic mobility, justice, education and jobs, and other relevant targets.

By asking policymakers to prioritize and reach the most vulnerable first, the SDGs offer a clarion call to “Leave No One Behind,” an agenda that has taken on increased relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed fault lines of inequality among different demographic groups. This imperative provides additional political momentum for the U.S. government to redress the impact on communities and groups that have been marginalized, mistreated, and discriminated against based on their color or sex. Viewing and measuring the targets of the SDGs through a racial and gender equity lens, and disaggregating the data by race and sex, can help pinpoint where the history in the United States of systemic marginalization continues to result in inequitable outcomes—and puts it into a larger global context, important both for U.S. and global progress on these issues. Measuring disaggregated progress toward 2030 will offer a clear, evidence-based appraisal of the U.S. government’s success in closing these gaps.25

Recommendation: Congress should introduce legislation to mandate submission of a U.S. VNR every three years.

A first VNR will establish a U.S. baseline and clarify where the greatest opportunities and challenges exist for the United States. Legislation mandating subsequent VNRs will ensure a sustained focus across election cycles and signal the importance of being accountable to the time-bound, evidence-based nature of the targets. Congress should also appropriate funds in the legislation to ensure that the VNR will occur and continue in spite of electoral cycles or budget pressures.

Recommendation: The president should direct the executive branch departments and agencies responsible for domestic policy to integrate relevant SDG targets and metrics into the plans required by President Biden’s Executive Orders Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government and Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.

These Executive Orders provide the basis for two of the key pillars of the Administration’s Build Back Better agenda, and agencies are already following a set of clear instructions to meet their mandate. Putting these in the common language and metrics of the relevant SDGs will make their actions more accessible to a global audience, make it easy to highlight U.S. innovations and policy successes on challenging social issues, and act as an important first step in “building the muscle” for the U.S. government to utilize the accountability and evidence base of the SDGs to assess progress and mobilize additional partnerships and actions.

3. Leverage “All-of-Society” Leadership on the SDGs

While developing a VNR, the SDG Committee should convene a set of regional summits within the United States as part of its recommitment to the SDGs to offer the opportunity for local leaders and multiple sectors to showcase their innovations, best practices, and commitments; offer data and assessments of progress at the local level; identify policy areas and resources where the federal government could help accelerate their progress; and develop new models of collaboration and governance to accelerate progress.

The SDG Committee should also develop a national 2030 platform that brings together state and local governments, corporations, investors, universities, philanthropies, civil society, and citizens to showcase their SDG commitments and actions, share tools and best practices, develop partnerships, and receive support for new ideas. This platform could encourage widespread adoption of innovations that have proven successful at a small scale. It would also highlight to government officials and the public the degree to which leading private-sector actors have adopted the SDGs, perhaps lending credibility to the metrics.

Based on this encouragement, and policy support and resources from the federal government, governors, state legislators, mayors, and city councils should adopt the metrics and time-bound, outcome-based targets of the SDGs to prioritize their policy objectives, improve transparency, and mobilize partners and stakeholders to contribute to progress. As a first step, local governments should align their strategies to the SDGs and undertake a VLR of progress, using the SDG metrics to set a baseline and assess gaps and opportunities for progress.

Similarly, corporate leaders, businesses, and investors should frame their social and environmental impacts within the framework and metrics of the SDGs, adopting its common language to enable greater comparability and set a standard that can be collectively understood. The business and investor community can use the SDGs to inform the next generation of universal ESG measures and disclosures; these must be rigorous and transparent, and eventually be a part of corporate material reporting.

The leadership that is already being displayed by multiple sectors of U.S. society on the SDGs offers an opportunity to the federal government simultaneously to accelerate progress at home while renewing American global “soft power” through a multistakeholder and networked approach. Rather than remain insular, concerned only about its own policies and resources in relation to the SDGs, the federal government should exercise leadership and act as a conductor to enhance coordination and collaboration among businesses, universities, philanthropies, nonprofits, and the city and state governments that have taken leading actions, by creating a platform for cultivating new partnerships and mutually reinforcing disparate efforts.


The United States may have been slow to warm to the idea of universality and accept the mandate that the SDGs should apply to its own social, economic, and environmental challenges. It has also been slow to make the SDGs meaningful in any real policy sense, having stayed mostly on the sidelines since the SDGs launched in January 2016. Yet the United States still has the chance to become a major force, even consequential, in driving progress both globally and at home in this decade of action. Embracing that the goals have meaning for its domestic agenda, and acting upon it, is a critical first step. ELI PRESS


1. G.A. Res. 70/1, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, U.N. Doc. A/RES/70/1 (Oct. 21, 2015),

2. Press Release, The White House, Remarks by the President on Sustainable Development Goals (Sept. 27, 2015),

3. G.A. Res. 55/2, United Nations Millennium Declaration, U.N. Doc. A/55/L.2 (Sept. 18, 2000),

4. Fact Sheet, The White House, The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Jan. 29, 2003),; U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, (last updated Feb. 22, 2016).

5. Fact Sheet, The White House, President Obama’s Commitment to Global Development (July 20, 2016),

6. G.A. Res. 55/2, supra note 3.

7. USAID, Acting on the Call 2016: Ending Preventable Child and Maternal Deaths: A Focus on Equity (2016),

8. Ambassador Power: Remarks at Negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, U.S. Mission Int’l Orgs. Geneva, Aug. 2, 2015,

9. Nicole Ruder et al., The GA Handbook: A Practical Guide to the United Nations General Assembly (2017),

10. Lindsay Maizland, Global Climate Agreements: Successes and Failures, Council on Foreign Rels., Nov. 17, 2021,

11. G.A. Res. 71/313, Work of the Statistical Commission Pertaining to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, U.N. Doc. A/71/L.75 (July 6, 2017),

12. Id.

13. U.S. National Statistics for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, (last visited June 24, 2022).

14. The initial online publication of the indicators used for USAID’s Journey to Self-Reliance referenced how the U.S. government’s indicators related to relevant SDG indicators. That publication was revised and updated and, when published, removed the mention of the SDG indicators. “Transformation at the U.S. Agency for International Development,” published in 2019 by the Congressional Research Service, links the Journey to Self-Reliance to the SDGs (

15. NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Voluntary Local Review Declaration, (last visited June 24, 2022).

16. State of Hawaii Office of Planning and Sustainable Development, Sustainable Development Goals, (last visited June 24, 2022); Los Angeles, Los Angeles Sustainable Development Goals, (last visited June 24, 2022).

17. Heidi Opdyke, CMU Completes Voluntary Review of Sustainable Development Goals, Carnegie Mellon Univ., Sept. 15, 2020,

18. See Press Release, United Nations, “We Are Only as Strong as the Weakest,” Secretary-General Stresses, at Launch of Economic Report on COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 31, 2020),; António Guterres, We Are All in This Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery, U.N., Apr. 23, 2020,

19. Remarks by Administrator Samantha Power at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, USAID, July 14, 2021,

20. Exec. Order No. 14008, 86 Fed. Reg. 7619 (Feb. 1, 2021).

21. Id.

22. Exec. Order No. 13985, 86 Fed. Reg. 7009 (Jan. 25, 2021).

23. American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Pub. L. No. 117-2, H.R. 1319, 117th Cong.,

24. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Pub. L. No. 117-58, H.R. 3684, 117th Cong. (2021),

25. Larry McGill, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, How the Sustainable Development Goals Can Help Community Foundations Respond to COVID-19 and Advance Racial Equity (2020),

ELI PRESS Turning U.S. commitments on sustainability and equity from rhetoric to action.

New Book Offers Expert Recommendations for a Sustainable United States
May 2023

(Washington, DC)— As the global movement for social and environmental justice gains momentum, we are in need of grounded and implementable solutions. The latest book from ELI Press–Governing for Sustainability–provides just that. The book recommends steps to advance each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), global goals unanimously approved by United Nations Member States in 2015.

The Water Poor
Michael Curley - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
The Water Poor

There are three great scourges among the developing world poor: malnutrition, anemia, and dysentery. The last is usually a result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation. In fact, over 80 percent of all of the disease in the world comes from contaminated water and lack of sanitation. Dysentery and other waterborne diseases kill more people each year than all forms of violence combined, including war. The largest single killer of children is waterborne disease. Over 1.8 million children will die this year from them. Thirty-five children will die while you’re reading this article.

According to World Vision, a faith-based humanitarian organization that has been in the anti-poverty business since the 1950s, the countries with the worst water poor problems are: Eritrea, where 80.7 percent of the people lack basic water service; Papua New Guinea, with 63.4 percent; Uganda, 61.1 percent; Ethiopia, 60.9 percent; Somalia, 60 percent; Angola, 59 percent; the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 58.2 percent; Chad, 57.5 percent; Niger, 54.2 percent; and, Mozambique, with 52.7 percent of its people without basic water.

In 2015, the plight of the water poor finally made it on the public agenda in a big way. The UN General Assembly adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The purpose of these goals is to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” Water and sanitation became SDG 6. The official wording maintains the goal is to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

In adopting the resolution for SDG 6, the UN set six specific targets for nations to act on. Target number one is for nations to provide “safe and affordable drinking water.” Target three is to “improve water quality, wastewater treatment, and safe use.”

The UN has actually been in the water poor business since 1977, when the world body convened a conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and declared the 1980s to be the International Drinking Water Decade. Unfortunately, the UN’s efforts did little more then shed some modest light on a very dire situation.

Estimates of the global number of water poor vary somewhat, but all are very large. In 2017, the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs calculated that “2.2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water and 4.2 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation.” According to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control in 2019, almost 900 million people across the globe have no access to safe drinking water. At the same time, CDC estimates that more than 2 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation service. Whether you use either the UN’s numbers or CDC’s, an enormous amount of water poor are suffering across the globe.

A few summers ago, a young woman went to Honduras on a church-run trip to an orphanage they ran there. When she returned she described how the children were constantly getting sick from the water they drank. So, some water people went down to the orphanage to see. And, yes, the water was alive. Now, this wasn’t in some remote village. It was in the national capital of Tegucigalpa. The children were drinking piped-in city water. So, $10,000-plus later, a water treatment system was installed at the orphanage. No more diarrhea and dysentery. The orphanage, which was spending $400 a month on bottled water that they vainly tried to get the children to drink, was able to spend instead on a doctor visit, twice a month, to look after the kids.

In urban slums, even in major cities like Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro, and in rural areas throughout the developing world, you can take a drop of local drinking water, put it under a handheld microscope, and you will see living water. There are all kinds of nasty things swimming in that drop. Just as at the orphanage, the water is very much alive.

Fixing a living water problem at an orphanage in Honduras is relatively easy. What about a whole country? Bringing safe drinking water to a country, or even just a town or village, is largely about money. But it is about more than money too.

First of all, it’s not just one large dose of money that is needed. That is just the beginning. Building a drinking water and sanitation system is a capital project. But once the system is built and operating, what then? How do you keep it going? What about the electricity to run the pumps? What about the chlorine or other treatment chemicals to make the water safe? What about technicians to fix it when things go wrong?

Living water can be found not just in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It can also be found in the former republics of the USSR in Central Asia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Union became concerned that the system of providing for infrastructure such as water, sewage, and even electricity had collapsed along with the political structure. They did not want the 15 former Soviet republics to cobble together some old socialist financial mechanisms to pay for their infrastructure. No, the EU and the United States wanted the new self-governing states to create systems in sync with the modern international capital markets. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency organized a team to go to the Republic of Kazakhstan to set up a system for building safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities — and to build about a dozen of them.

After the collapse of communism, the collective-farm system collapsed too. With that demise went the government workers who ran the water systems in the villages where the farm workers lived. After ten years, most of these drinking water and sanitation systems had collapsed as well. So, as part of the West’s effort to drag the former Soviet republics into the 20th century, EPA asked their team to organize a sustainable financial and managerial structure so that they wouldn’t collapse again.

In Kazakhstan, the central government took care of the environmental infrastructure in the major cities of Almaty, Astana, and Atyrau. But the rural areas were left to fend for themselves. So, the United States and European Union entered into an agreement with the Kazakh government to set up a rural water finance program, with demonstration projects in 15 villages in the Almaty Oblast region. The money for the demonstration projects would come 60 percent from the U.S. government, 20 percent from the Kazakh government, and 20 percent from the Oblast government.

The technology was no problem in Kazakhstan. All you had to do was pay for it. So, the projects got built. But what then? What happens when a pipe breaks, or the system runs out of chlorine? In this case, the team specifically chose villages where the local council would agree in advance to set up a modest fee collection system from all residents to pay for the chemicals, the electric power, and the maintenance on their systems. And once the money was there, the know-how was no problem.

So, the program worked in Kazakhstan. And it’s still working.

The area where the team worked in Kazakhstan was about 1,500 miles north of India. The Kazakhs were nomads who were overrun by the expanding Russian empire in the mid-19th century. After the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks organized vast areas into huge collective farms. They built villages to house the workers on these farms. And they built rudimentary systems to supply the villages with safe drinking water.

The first project was in a village of about 2,000 called Algabas. This is a wonderful Bolshevik-inspired name. Algabas means forward in the Kazakh language. About a month after the christening of the first project in Algabas by the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, the mayor invited the team to formally inspect the system. It consisted of a re-bored well, a pump house that served as a water treatment facility, a 50-cubic-meter concrete storage tank, and stand pipes every 50 meters down each of the streets in the village. After meeting the village elders, the team adjourned to the mayor’s house for lunch.

The mayor’s wife was the village medical officer. She was trained as a dentist. This training is not like a typical dentist in the West with four years of college and another four years of dental school. In the Soviet Union, dental training was a three-year course immediately after high school. And that was it. After lunch, the mayor’s wife took the team to her office to see the logbook where she kept a record of all the illnesses that she treated each day among the villagers. But they had to hurry. She had gotten word that a woman was coming in from the mountains to get medical help. The woman was having a difficult pregnancy. So she was going to see a dentist — the only medical officer available.

So, the team went to the office in the village hall. She showed them her logbook — a vintage World War II, canvas-covered notebook. She showed the team page after page where virtually all of the entries said “dysentery.” Then there was the page with the date that the water system began operation. No more living water, no more dysentery. Before then, there was almost a page a day taken up with dysentery entries alone. After the water system started up, one page lasted more than a week reporting the other illnesses of the village, because there were no more cases of dysentery.

The team returned to Algabas in the fall. It was mud season. There are no paved roads in the village. Mud everywhere. As the water team walked back to their truck, a grandmother came toward them. She stopped right in front of them, got down on her knees right there in the mud, and kissed their hands — all the while muttering “thank you, thank you” in Russian.

But, as noted above, safe drinking water is about more than money. What happens when the pump shuts off? Or some of the pipes break?

The answer to this important question was provided by an amazing organization in the United States called the National Rural Water Association. The NRWA was founded in 1976, two years after the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The SDWA authorizes EPA to set national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally occurring and man-made contaminants. The NRWA was formed because many of the original EPA standards were written for large metropolitan water utilities; many smaller utilities did not have the resources to meet them. So the NRWA was founded by eight states.

A rural water system is one that serves less than 10,000 users. Over the years, the 42 other states have joined the NRWA and have formed their own local versions, so that state organizations now work with some 66,520 rural water systems in the United States.

As noted above, bringing safe water to those without it is about more than money. And that is where the NRWA’s greatest contribution to the United States and, hopefully, the world someday, enters the picture. The NRWA calls its gift the Circuit Rider Program. The NRWA began its program in 1980. The program was intended to provide support for small utility systems that did not always have the experience, equipment, training, or personnel to deal with large or persistent problems. Circuit riders usually operate within a specific area of their designated state, visiting the small utilities on a regular basis. The term comes from the old American West. In the 19th century, judges and law enforcement officers — sheriffs and marshals — were often responsible for large multi-county jurisdictions. They mapped out a circuit within their area and visited the towns there on a regular schedule on horseback. Hence they became known as circuit riders.

Today’s circuit riders are jacks-of-all-trades in the water business. Their job is to go around to rural water systems with little or no staffs and make sure their water is flowing and safe. They are electricians. They are plumbers. They are carpenters. They are water chemists. They are public health specialists. Circuit riders can fix any water system, no matter how it is broken.

In Central America, the U.S. concepts were put to the test. The International Rural Water Association became the daughter corporation of the NRWA. The NRWA exists on its modest dues income as well as grants from EPA and the Department of Agriculture. At first, the NRWA furnished the IRWA with a modest budget to do water infrastructure projects in Central America.

There was no problem with technology nor the expertise in Central America, since the NRWA/IRWA members brought it with them. Here in the United States, with small, rural water systems, the CEOs are often multi-talented and, in addition, represent their systems as the official NRWA members. And so it was that some were willing to donate their time to go to Central America to build rural water systems in poor villages. The result was the IRWA had both the money and the expertise to build systems in Central America.

The IRWA team also made sure that every village they worked in had some kind of a water committee that had the full support of the citizens — just as in Kazakhstan. But then they ran into a problem. No one in the villages had a clue what to do to maintain their systems or to fix them, if there were a problem. There were no circuit riders in Central America. Luckily, however, one of the IRWA team members was a circuit rider in the United States. He was able to work with the local water committees to show them at least the rudiments of day-to-day operation and maintenance of their systems.

The IRWA team realized that absence of circuit riders would be a major problem throughout rural Central America wherever the people were lucky enough to have a village water system. So, the organization began to focus on what could be done to train a cadre of circuit riders. They pondered how to create a training center for village water technicians in Central America.

As an initial problem, however the name circuit rider doesn’t translate easily into Spanish — or really into any other language. So, they couldn’t be called that. Furthermore, it was never going to be a high-paying job. The only reason for doing this work would be the pride of providing people with an essential service. The team, therefore, decided to give these technicians the honorific title of Caballeros de Agua, or Knights of Water.

Alas, it never came to pass. Although there were many circuit riders from the United States who would gladly have helped train the Central American technicians, this effort was slammed by an insurmountable problem: the IRWA program was coming to an end because of money problems at the parent NRWA.

So, where does the money come from today? The answer is twofold: from some governments and from private individuals through charitable organizations. We’ll take up the governmental sources first.

At the international level, the World Health Organization is not a source of funding, but rather a critical monitor. It has recently published its “Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water” report, somehow reduced to the acronym GLAAS. The WHO has usefully been tracking national water and sanitary health — with the better acronym WASH — efforts since 2008, providing a blueprint for potential funders.

The international development banks in Africa, Asia, and the Americas could be sources of funding too, but they aren’t. They’re banks. They make loans. They don’t make grants. One of the problems that the water poor have is that their governments don’t borrow money for safe water.

The U.S. government’s effort to bring water to the poor is housed in the Agency for International Development, which focuses on “high-priority countries where needs and opportunities are greatest.” The agency statistics show it provided $835 million to support WASH activities in 51 countries during the first two years of implementation of the federal government’s Global Water Strategy, fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

In addition to governmental efforts, private organizations are also very active in the campaign to bring safe water and decent sanitation to the poor. One of the most important, and also perhaps one of the most improbable, is the Rotary Club. Rotary International is probably the biggest and most generous of all the private organizations bringing water to the developing world. There are over 35,000 Rotary Clubs in some 200 countries across the planet.

In 2007, some club members formed the Water And Sanitation Rotary Action Group, using the acronym WASRAG. (Some years later, presumably because most of the rest of the world refers to the problem as the “water and sanitary health” issue with the acronym WASH, Rotary decided to change its group’s name too.)

In the last 14 years, Rotary has built several hundred million dollars of developing world water and sanitation systems and is now participating in an estimated $100 million of projects each year. You can look at what they have done by looking them up at

WaterAid is another major force in the water poor war. It is an international organization set up in Britain in 1981 at the beginning of the UN’s International Drinking Water Decade. In 2010, WaterAid became a federation and now has affiliates in 27 countries, including the United States. Its 2019 budget was almost $160 million.

In another improbable story, the creation of the H20 Africa Foundation by American actor Matt Damon was announced at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 at the showing of Running the Sahara, which Damon co-produced. In 2009, this group merged with another water charity called WaterPartners. The new organization is just called Since its founding and its predecessors have “empowered more than 36 million people with access to safe water or sanitation.” Working with 154 partners across the globe, the organization has mobilized over $2.9 billion for the water poor.

There are also a number of other organizations that do this work. Water for People was formed in Colorado in 1991 by the American Water Works Association. In addition to Africa, this organization works both in Central America and South America. Water for People has undertaken projects in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Malawi, Nicaragua, Peru, Rwanda, and Uganda. They have completed projects in almost 5,300 communities, which have impacted the lives of almost 3.7 million of the water poor.

In Texas there is a faith-based group appropriately named Living Water International. It was established in 1990 and currently operates in 21 countries. It has completed more than 21,000 water projects, which included drilling new water wells, harvesting water, and re-habilitating non-working wells. For the last several years, LWI has completed over $16 million worth of projects each year.

As you can see from the water work of both the government agencies and private organizations, the key to bringing safe drinking water and basic sanitation to the water poor is to do many small projects at the village level. It is also critical to make sure that the villages are onboard to collect the modest monthly sums necessary to operate their systems — and that technicians are available to keep the systems operating properly. There is an axiom in environmental finance: the less expensive the projects, the more projects will get done. The more projects that get done, the better will be the quality of life for the people on this fragile planet. And, if more water projects are built, there will be fewer water poor. TEF

CENTERPIECE They are the hundreds of millions of people across the planet who have no access to safe drinking water or basic sanitation. We have the technology in hand. The major barrier lies in financing both capital investment for facilities and their ongoing operating costs.

Reimagining the Future
John Pendergrass - Environmental Law Institute
LeRoy Paddock - George Washington University Law School
Environmental Law Institute
George Washington University Law School
Current Issue
Reimagining the Future

WE ARE now into our second half-century of environmental and natural resources law. President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on New Year’s Day 1970, making it a convenient marker for the birth of modern environmental protection. NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of environmental law, and it heralded a new era of federal legislation, including the Clean Air Act later that year and a whole roster of laws to follow. The federal acts, along with complementary state environmental statutes, have substantially reduced pollution, resulting in cleaner air, water, and soils. And species like the brown pelican and bald eagle have been brought back from the brink.

While critical progress has been made, significant gaps in environmental laws remain if the country is to achieve a more sustainable economy. Understanding that, the authors of this article convened a diverse group of leading environmental law experts to consider how the field might need to evolve to meet current challenges and those expected over the next decades. We characterize this effort as “Reimagining Environmental Law.” In many ways, it means as well reimagining the future.

Toward that end, ELI and George Washington University Law School convened two dialogues, first at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin, in March 2019, and second at Airlie House Conference Center in Warrenton, Virginia, in November 2019. Both centers have been settings for environmental conferences for decades, with Airlie House hosting a conference in September 1969 that recommended the creation of ELI. (Information about the meetings and the attendees can be found at This article reflects the discussions at Wingspread and Airlie House, subsequent discussions with participants, and research conducted by ELI and GW Law.

In consultation with our experts, the authors concluded that among the key challenges remaining for environmental law are climate change and decarbonization, nonpoint sources of pollution, materials conservation and reuse, and ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss. In addition, environmental justice presents both an area of needed focus alone as well as attention in cutting across all the other challenges.

The climate change problem is well-known and well-documented. The participants saw the major challenge for environmental law as finding a way to support dramatic decarbonization of the economy to avoid potentially catastrophic impact of warming and supporting needed adaptation to change. While the pathways for a transition to a low-carbon economy are known, reaching the goal of 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050 will require legal changes at all levels of government, as well as accompanying economic, political, and social changes.

Essential to the transformation needed is an economy-wide price on carbon to provide the economic incentives to make the shifts necessary to reach zero emissions. This means imposing a direct cost on each ton of greenhouse gas emitted. To accomplish this, policymakers must create a system at the national level to achieve the necessary economy-wide shifts. The participants did not express a clear preference for a tax or a trading system that caps emissions from GHG sources, though an internationally agreed system would be preferable. Any such pricing or trading system will also need to mitigate the disproportionate effect it will have on those with lower incomes, due to the higher costs of fossil fuels coupled with higher proportions of income spent on energy. It likely will also require regulatory measures to assure that environmental justice communities do not continue to disproportionately bear the risks associated with co-pollutants, like sulfur dioxide and mercury.

Given the decades-long effort to place a price on carbon and the urgency, immediate action is needed using the tools already available to reduce GHG emissions. The nation will need to address this issue across the economy through a comprehensive approach like those identified in ELI Press’s Legal Pathways for Deep Decarbonization book, which lists more than a thousand recommendations for legal instruments covering all forms of GHGs and how they are generated and released.

We also need a comprehensive and just policy for adapting to the risks — and impacts — of climate change and for helping communities become resilient. This will require an appropriate model for assessing risk. Decisions must be based on the possibility of the uncertain but potentially massive catastrophic outcomes related to natural disasters, sea-level rise, drought, and biodiversity loss. Many of these processes will require legal tools, like the model laws being produced by volunteer attorneys based on the recommendations in Legal Pathways, but others will require public investment such as transit projects, and in making buildings safer, healthier, and more energy efficient. Electrifying and investing in grid updates will also be essential in this effort, creating a more robust, resilient, and efficient network. Government agencies need to plan for how they will deliver essential services amidst climate disruptions, and how they will coordinate with partners at other levels of government. In addition to significant adaptation actions, the law must account for the liabilities associated with unintended consequences of adaptation measures.

Federal, state, local, and tribal governments need to remove subsidies, including tax breaks and other incentives, for fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries. These governments will also need to reduce or remove regulatory barriers related to decarbonization of the economy while promoting social equity at every stage and level.

Government policies are needed to provide incentives for innovation and investment toward a carbon-free future. This will be particularly important in the absence of a price on carbon to promote development of the necessary technologies. Means to remove or sequester carbon from the atmosphere may be necessary if mitigation efforts do not advance at a sufficient pace.

An effective climate governance regime will require the engagement of the private sector in a multi-tiered system with distributed roles and accountability mechanisms. The regime must capitalize on and encourage private-sector initiatives to meet climate change goals. This can include supply chain systems that rely on a variety of approaches, including certification, auditing, labeling, and reporting programs enforced through contracts.

An equity lens will be critical in designing these polices to ensure that affected and especially vulnerable communities are meaningfully involved in designing and implementing these measures. If policies are designed to protect against the greatest potential risk, in many cases this will result in just outcomes. An updated and enhanced conception of the duty of care in both government and the private sector will help to facilitate this.

THE nation has made major strides in controlling water pollution from point sources. But many of the sources of impairment to water quality are from nonpoint sources — runoff and discharges from areas of land and operations that are not subject to direct federal regulation under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Even though these uncontrolled sources of pollution were recognized in the statute, they were not regulated because of concerns with federal legislative intrusion on state and local land use prerogatives and solicitude for such industries as agriculture, forestry, and land development.

The Wingspread and Airlie House participants preferred a more watershed-health-focused system over the status quo, which concentrates permit-by-permit on individual sources and on effluent limits on pollutant discharges. An alternative future could be far more focused on land quality and water quality results.

Given the major contribution of diffuse sources to the remaining water pollution problems, a new sense of urgency is needed for dealing with it. One way to accomplish this result could be to recharacterize these sources as “uncontrolled pollution” rather than using the innocuous term nonpoint pollution. The public and institutional motivation necessary to support advancement in law needs to be defined as achieving better environmental and public health outcomes — not controlling nonpoint sources.

State regulators should create a new structural framework for dealing with uncontrolled pollution. Simply relying on the current state water quality and waste load allocation framework has not proven effective. This new framework should capture sectors that have previously escaped requirements to reduce uncontrolled pollution. It should also focus on watersheds with major, recurrent pollution threatening public health and welfare.

Legislators can also consider funding and relying on big data, and making it publicly accessible. A great deal of data exists on water quality and more will become available as monitoring technology advances and is used by citizens. This will make it possible to define and track progress toward watershed outcomes. Sharing of data on public platforms and integration of ecological information with water quality, discharge data, geo-siting of best management practices, remote sensing, and biological sampling should be encouraged and supported.

At the federal level, officials should provide key actors with the power to create change by matching the best tool to the source of impairment. Policymakers should inventory effective regulatory and non-regulatory approaches and target these to sectors, watersheds, and problems where they have been proven. EPA or others should construct a database of tools used by the states, federal programs, the private sector, and others, and determine how these can be applied to different forms of uncontrolled pollution in different types of watersheds and settings. This resource could further be backed by supporting and funding integrated water management planning, and making funding available for implementation of the tools.

At both levels of government, policymakers should link federal and state procurement to effective management of uncontrolled pollution in the supply chain. This approach recognizes that government funding is substantial in the acquisition of food and fiber, materials, energy, and development. The reimagined approach would expressly provide for disclosures and certifications and perhaps pollution controls as conditions related to receiving funds.

All agencies at the national level need to require that federally funded land and water and development projects, and all authorized activities on federal lands, must result in net water quality improvements — or at least restoration to no net loss of water quality where there is no opportunity to achieve a net improvement.

THE European Union in its Circular Economy Plan noted, “There is only one planet Earth, yet by 2050, the world will be consuming as if there were three.” According to the United Nations, “In 2017, worldwide material consumption reached 92.1 billion tons . . . a 254 percent increase from 27 billion in 1970, with the rate of extraction accelerating every year since 2000. This reflects the increased demand for natural resources that has defined the past decades, resulting in undue burden on environmental resources.”

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 deals with production and consumption and notes that achieving its goal requires urgent reduction of the world’s “ecological footprint by changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources.” SDG 12 points out that “efficient management of our shared natural resources, and the way we dispose of toxic waste and pollutants, are important targets to achieve this goal. Encouraging industries, businesses, and consumers to recycle and reduce waste is equally as important.” Materials consumption is particularly challenging in the United States. In 2017 U.S. per capita materials consumption, including fuels, was 42 percent higher than Europe’s. Despite the increasingly clear adverse impacts of unsustainable materials use, the issue has received relatively little attention in U.S. environmental law.

The Wingspread and Airlie House participants built on work by the leading advocates of the circular economy, the World Resources Institute and the Ellen McArthur Foundation. The participants reimagined materials conservation and use to include a number of elements. With growing corporate, government, and nongovernment interest in the idea of a circular economy, the participants thought now is a good time to convene a national dialogue to discuss how to move to such a system in the United States.

Extended producer responsibility, or EPR, at the national level would create a level playing field across the country. A national EPR for electronics waste would help reduce environmental impacts and could make it easier for businesses to set up systems.

A national GHG policy that establishes a price on carbon would be important beyond just climate change by helping drive product redesign and reductions in materials use. A price on carbon could drive business innovation by providing a financial incentive to look carefully at energy inputs needed to extract new resources and manufacture and transport products, and to find ways to reuse them.

Federal procurement rules could be redesigned so that criteria favor products and services that are consistent with a circular economy. Further, as part of the economic recovery effort, the federal government is likely to spend a great deal on infrastructure. As a result, the new administration can have a major impact on responsible production and consumption by taking materials conservation and circular economy principles into account in procurement, perhaps through executive orders that build on available authority. Such changes could model desired behavior for state governments, universities, and other large procuring organizations.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations could be revised to reflect the circular economy hierarchy, which goes beyond the traditional reduce, reuse, recycle paradigm to include preventing the use of resources in the first instance, encouraging repairing and refurbishing, and supporting remanufacturing and repurposing. Model legislation could be developed for states to adopt this new circular economy waste hierarchy.

Materials conservation could be added as a factor to be considered in NEPA analyses. The White House Council on Environmental Quality could contribute to responsible production and consumption by providing guidance to agencies on how to consider materials use and conservation in environmental impact review.

Policymakers can explore the possibility of “fate labelling” for consumer products, so that purchasers can make more informed decisions. This could be done using QR codes or through systems in use or planned in the European Union.

HEALTHY populations cannot exist without healthy ecosystems. Driven primarily by anthropogenic activities, destroyed and degraded ecosystems threaten critical resources in significant and varied ways. Land, ocean, and freshwater systems are all affected. While legal and policy efforts have attempted to address the problem through species- or resource-specific mechanisms within geopolitical borders, the lack of coordinated efforts built around ecosystem-based solutions has meant the problem continues relatively unchecked. Without humanity changing current production and consumption patterns, along with precipitous population growth and unsustainable practices, trends will continue to worsen.

Healthy habitats provide untold benefits, sometimes called ecosystem services, which must be adequately preserved. Responses to these challenges must be direct and swift to avert the most significant impacts of development.

At least eighty countries have adopted policies to help ensure any impacts to biodiversity or ecosystem services from development projects are offset by mitigation, an approach known as “no net loss.” One important goal of the no-net-loss method is to make sure any populations affected by the development project and associated mitigation are not left worse off, but are ideally better off after the plans are completed.

In the United States, no federal statute focuses exclusively or directly on mitigating ecosystem degradation. Generally, domestic environmental laws focus on addressing a single issue rather than on ecosystems comprehensively. Unfortunately, these policies often do not account for the complex and interdependent nature of ecosystems. Moreover, these issues are typically managed based on short-term goals and primarily within distinct political and jurisdictional boundaries that do not necessarily reflect the scope of targeted resources. Even when governmental bodies work together on a project or program, their mandate and funding allocation falls short of long-term ecosystem restoration.

Policies at the federal, state, and local levels that emphasize no net loss of ecosystem services are needed to ensure these functions are preserved. This could be achieved by building on existing programs. An immediate action that could provide impetus to such a policy would be to revive the “Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decisionmaking” memo, issued jointly by the Office of Management and Budget, CEQ, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2015. This memo called on “agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services . . . in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.”

Policymakers should revise their environment and natural resources management frameworks with a goal of adopting a more holistic approach that prioritizes local ecosystem-level decisionmaking. This includes enacting federal legislation that requires no net loss of ecosystem services and encourages local and state-level ecosystem management. The framework would build on the existing approach to wetlands management but would provide expanded application and account for a wider array of natural benefits. Legislation should include provisions for grant funding for research and data collection, and for the development of multi‐stakeholder, consensus‐based ecosystem management. For example, federal actions subject to review under NEPA could shift focus from considering project impacts to ecosystem services impacts. Local and state land use decisions could build upon precedent set with mitigation banking under the Clean Water Act.

It is critical to emphasize that this approach could become a major equity concern if mismanaged. Communities must be involved so that the damages and benefits are spread justly across and within communities. This is especially true when addressing the legacy of discrimination faced by environmental justice communities and determining what damage is permissible under a no-net-loss framework. Making these decisions and processes more local provides an opportunity to protect residents from this potential concern.

Federal changes should be bolstered by efforts at the state level, including through revising or adopting state-level NEPA laws to include requiring an analysis of how a project will affect ecosystems and ecosystem services in the long term.

Policymakers at all levels should reform governance structures to complement ecological boundaries. Ecologically oriented governance will prioritize the entire habitat or watershed and more effectively integrate natural systems and environmental media to better ensure impacts are accounted for and degradation is mitigated. That reorganization will necessarily require inter- and intra-governmental cooperation at all levels — federal, state, local, and tribal. Throughout, these techniques should involve communities and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge.

To better align ecology and governance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be given the authority to work with multiple levels of government and private entities to negotiate land use plans that protect or enhance ecosystem services. Such authority would be particularly useful when endangered species and critical habitat are at issue, providing a protective mechanism with widespread stakeholder engagement. Bringing together all parties with jurisdiction within a given ecological context with oversight by FWS may enhance cooperation and response to ecosystem management challenges.

New and existing regional governance bodies could be provided with “pre-authorization compacts” akin to water compacts and regional electricity grid agreements to address different parts of the same environmental event or phenomenon. While arguably less comprehensive than ecosystem-level management, compacts may be more feasible and can still help facilitate responsive coordination to environmental impacts.

INJUSTICE is manifest in several dimensions across the landscape of U.S. environmental law and policy, at all levels of governance, from local actions to state and federal decisionmaking. Communities of color and low-income communities often experience higher releases of pollutants, siting of undesirable land uses, and lack of access to environmental benefits and amenities. These same communities already bear a substantial health, social, and economic burden from pollutants, poorer access to healthy living spaces, effects of poverty, and inadequate access to health care. Even where pollutants and practices are similar to those experienced elsewhere, the addition of these burdens to existing health, socioeconomic, and community conditions can have greater cumulative adverse impacts on such environmental justice community residents.

At the federal level, the framework for environmental justice has been almost entirely based on executive orders and agency memoranda, rather than on enforceable laws and regulations. Environmental justice gained formal federal recognition in Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” issued by President Clinton in 1994, and still in effect today.

But there is still no focused and specific federal statutory foundation for environmental justice. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has identified various provisions in federal law that can be cited by federal agencies when they desire to support an EJ-related decision. OEJ also has developed EJScreen, a mapping and information tool, to assist agency decisionmakers and permit applicants in identifying communities and implementation factors where cumulative adverse impacts may occur. In the absence of legal drivers, however, this kind of tool cannot alone produce substantive change.

A number of states have enacted environmental justice legislation or adopted regulations or policy instruments to give EJ a greater role in decisionmaking. California’s CalEnviroScreen, for example, enables decisionmakers to identify environmentally burdened communities and create indices used for permitting, enforcement, and funding prioritization.

THE Wingspread and Airlie conferees recognized the need for legal processes to obtain just outcomes and not merely more accessible procedures — especially given cumulative impacts on EJ communities. They noted that EJ initiatives, in order to be effective, must be thoroughly integrated into all decisionmaking affecting the environment. It cannot simply be an add-on or check-off at the end of a decision process.

A minority of states already have constitutional rights related to the environment, but only a few of these are self-executing and enforceable by members of the public and communities. Environmental justice may be advanced by promoting adoption of such state amendments. In those states that already have only hortatory environmental amendments on the books, the approach would seek appropriate further amendment to enhance enforceability. This approach would require careful drafting of amendments to ensure that they are self-executing and hence enforceable without the need for additional state legislation. It would also need to create or recognize a public trust in the natural resources of the state, including clean air, pure water, biological resources, and publicly owned lands and resources, and state a human right to a clean and healthy environment.

Federal and state legislation that embodies important EJ procedural and outcome elements should be adopted. Such legislation can include codification of E.O. 12898 elements, including definitions of minority and low-income communities and disproportionately high and adverse impacts, as well as meaningful engagement and other provisions. The laws could require tools such as EJScreen. There could be other requirements for new development in communities overburdened by pollution to offset any projected increases in pollution loadings, with reductions in the existing pollution inventory on a 1:1 or net-reduction basis. Statutes could mandate disclosures of information by applicants or operators that will enable communities to participate in review processes and take action to protect their health and resources. They could remove legal barriers to public participation in decisions affecting EJ communities. Finally, the laws could create a private right of action for enforcement of civil rights.

For the private sector, policymakers could promote and encourage private governance and corporate commitments and accountability mechanisms for environmental justice. Companies and groups of companies and organizations can develop best practices and codes of conduct that firms integrate into their decision processes, management systems, supply chain requirements, and internal and external accountability mechanisms.

As the country embarks on the second half-century of the modern environmental law era, it is important to recognize both the successes of the past as well as the issues for which environmental law has not been as successful. The Reimagining process was designed to focus on some of the critical issues to ensure that policymakers seriously address remaining problems and inequities. We hope that when our successors look back on environmental law at 100, they will be able to identify significant progress in the areas identified by the Wingspread and Airlie House participants as critical issues. R&P

John Pendergrass is ELI’s vice president for programs and publications, and leads the Research and Policy Division. ELI Visiting Scholar LeRoy Paddock is distinguished professorial lecturer in environmental law at George Washington University Law School.


The authors thank all the Wingspread and Airlie House participants, who are the true authors of this article, and James McElfish, Sandra Nichols Thiam, and Jarryd Page, who drafted the white papers that were excerpted here.


ELI POLICY BRIEF No. 17 Over the next 50 years, policymakers need to fill in significant gaps in environmental and resource law to achieve a sustainable economy. That means addressing climate change, polluted runoff, materials reuse, ecological degradation, and environmental justice.

Foiling the Resource Curse
Lisa Dale - Columbia University Earth Institute
Columbia University Earth Institute
Current Issue
Foiling the Resource Curse

Sustainable development — the buzzword for humanitarian aid organizations, assistance agencies, academics, and conservation groups — is facing an identity crisis. The term was introduced into the mainstream in the 1987 Brundtland Commission report. It famously urges intergenerational equity as a guiding principle for economic development. Adding environmental and social supports to the traditional economic leg of the development stool, the commission argues that advancement based on all three legs will not only provide long-term stability but will in effect raise the height of the seat. To improve humanity’s lot on a bountiful planet, the challenge, then, of sustainable development involves reconciling seemingly contrary goals, of ensuring that each leg truly supports the stool.

The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals capture our current rendition of the concept. An update themselves to the Millennium Development Goals, which were established in 2000 as a tool for focusing international attention on less-advanced countries, the 17 SDGs are more comprehensive and offer a decisionmaking framework that applies to all countries, rich and poor. Critics are quick to note that the SDGs are in no way legally binding. They aren’t a treaty. Indeed, the UN-brokered SDGs don’t compel countries to do anything at all. They are voluntary, with aspirational targets such as “no poverty” and “gender equality.”

No single goal can be seen to be more or less important than the others, and in the absence of an admittedly impossible prioritization scheme, sustainable development effectively can mean all things to all people.

Further confounding the operationalization of the SDGs is climate change. While the SDGs include “climate action” as one of the 17 goals, in fact today we understand the concept of sustainable development almost entirely within the context of a warming planet. As the complex dynamics of development in a carbon-constrained world have emerged, the very notion of whether it is possible to have sustainable development is at stake.

But perhaps there is no other time in recent history that better reminds us how important statements of shared priorities can be. They may lack legal force, but the SDGs represent nothing less than agreed-upon principles for human advancement. They help focus broad efforts that are invariably under-resourced by offering touchstones to guide trade-offs. And they provide a mechanism for flagging actions that don’t meet the standards. Countries with wildly different approaches to economic development and politics now routinely integrate language from the SDGs to align their efforts with global norms.

But to be useful on the ground, the SDGs must be subject to place-based analysis. Without field-testing, we might value the shared set of concepts but cannot assess whether in fact the goals are actionable and achievable. The discovery of a massive natural gas deposit off the coast of Mozambique presents a compelling case study. As part of an inter-disciplinary team of students and researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, I had the opportunity to visit the country in 2018.

The Republic of Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony located along Africa’s southern Indian Ocean coastline, across from the island of Madagascar. The country achieved independence in 1975, and 16 years of civil war followed. Reconstruction efforts ushered in a period of rapid growth, both economically and politically. The new constitution, established in 1990, created democratic political structures, and subsequent amendments emphasized a decentralized system, with local elected provincial assemblies. Perhaps as a consequence of this recent political upheaval, institutional development has lagged. The Ministry of Land, Environment and Rural Development was created only five years ago.

Most Mozambicans rely on rain-fed subsistence agriculture for survival, with an estimated 25 percent of GDP coming from that sector. International donors have largely funded the country’s economic growth; one outcome of this support is high levels of national debt. While natural resources are abundant, with more than a thousand miles of coastline supporting fishing and trade, poverty remains the persistent reality for more than half of the citizenry. Fully 70 percent of the country’s 29 million residents live in rural conditions, with an estimated literacy rate of 58 percent nationwide. Women and those who live far from the capital city of Maputo are especially unlikely to have any formal education beyond primary school. Health care is similarly scarce. The country ranks among the poorest in the world.

In 2014, geologists discovered 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Rovuma Basin off the coast of northern Mozambique. In addition, there are known oil deposits that include the Pande and Temane fields, with exploration that began during colonial times and has continued in earnest since independence. The new gas discovery has sparked international interest; Anadarko is now leading a consortium of global energy companies in exploring and developing the vast deposit. Plans include extraction, onshore processing, and an industrial mega-zone located in the remote far northern region of the country.

The company has drafted a lengthy and detailed environmental impact assessment, but questions remain. Among the most pressing is whether the public will benefit from the discovery of such valuable resources along their country’s coastline. If new energy resources can be a trigger for improved livelihoods and a more resilient national development pathway, then we might see progress toward the SDGs. But historical evidence cautions that when an impoverished country is the site of abundant petroleum, the opposite happens.

Decades of study on the resource curse has yielded some consistent results that planners in Mozambique would do well to remember as they chart a different path. In the short term, a sudden spike in mineral wealth can trigger violence. Civil conflict frequently persists when such wealth is concentrated in the hands of elites at the expense of workers. Ongoing violence in Sierra Leone has accompanied the profitable diamond trade there. Nigeria’s oil abundance is similarly paired with persistent militant activity. Not coincidentally, prominent and bloody incidents of terrorism in the northern region of Mozambique have accompanied the early stages of infrastructure for natural gas development in the country.

Over the longer term, researchers find a strong correlation between mineral wealth and a decline in democracy. Revenue from extractive industries tends to support incumbent leaders, and that can be a stabilizing force. However, in countries with fragile governments, resource wealth often erodes democratic institutions and leads to autocratic rule. Today, 23 countries generate more than 60 percent of their exports in the form of oil and gas; none of these are stable democracies. Wealthy nations like the United Arab Emirates have clearly benefitted from their reliance on minerals, but the growth strategy that stems from oil abundance has rendered democracy a non-starter. Newer democracies and countries with high corruption profiles fare especially poorly. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular has been a veritable showcase for the resource curse, as recently independent countries find themselves ill-equipped to juggle the myriad indirect impacts associated with resource wealth.

Mineral abundance also correlates with declining performance on a range of indices that track human development and sustainability. Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gabon are just a few of the most well-known examples. In each of those cases, the country is a major exporter of valuable minerals, and all rank high in corruption and low in literacy, health care, education, and lifespan.

How can Mozambique do better? The resource curse is not a monolith, and policymakers have learned some valuable lessons over time. Still, easy solutions don’t exist. Despite the extensive literature on the causes and outcomes of the curse, very little attention has been devoted to solutions. Without identifying the resource curse explicitly, the SDGs provide potential guidance. Most directly, SDG #7 identifies affordable and clean energy as key. Indirectly, several other goals form a nexus with the challenges facing Mozambique. For example, SDG #9 urges innovation and industrial growth; SDG #11 seeks sustainable communities; and SDG #14 focuses on life below water, clearly a matter of concern for off-shore energy development and fisheries.

Within the scientific literature generally and the SDGs explicitly, one place of agreement is that institutions are key. Resource-rich democracies provide a useful guidepost. In Norway, for example, a stable system has fostered a durable institutional structure. No resource curse has befallen the oil-soaked European nation; to the contrary, Norwegians enjoy some of the highest incomes in the world. Citizens are among the happiest on Earth.

As the foundation of a legal and policy framework, institutions need to reflect national values like an intolerance for corruption, support for the rule of law, and a priority for capacity building. Civil society — already weak in Mozambique, as in many newly democratic states — should find safe avenues for participation. Local governments are especially critical for community services when a national government is captured by industrial triumphalism; they should be empowered. Since steady revenue from minerals tends to insulate national governments from accountability — especially when it eliminates the need to tax residents — Mozambique will need to be particularly attentive to opportunities that can expand the authority held by local administrators.

Some research suggests that strong property rights can help to fortify residents against the negative effects of industrial dominance. Mozambique’s Land Law, passed in 1997, retained ownership of all land in the hands of the national government. Residents are granted use rights, and notably the law explicitly recognizes customary rights. While this provision is a victory for indigenous groups, who may hold land for generations without legal title, it is likely to be insufficient in the face of nationally backed industrial mandates for expansion. The vast majority of small-holders in the country still lack formal title to their land.

While property rights and strong institutions can meaningfully contribute to sustainable development, most of the solutions to the resource curse can be found in transparency. With an eye toward improved accountability, the argument for transparency suggests that government watchdogs and civil society can provide an essential check on centralized power only if governments and the private sector are forced to showcase their actions. Today, many transnational companies acknowledge the importance of transparent operations; in this instance, Anadarko has already completed the massive environmental assessment and made it publicly available. But still the challenges are deep, complex, and inextricable from the promise of new mineral wealth.

For example, how much of the new energy resource should remain in domestic hands rather than be exported? Can an influx of natural gas improve energy availability in a rural country with a nearly non-existent power grid outside of its urban cores? Some have argued that a more sustainable approach to energy development might mean leap-frogging a traditional grid designed for fossil fuels entirely, in favor of focused development for local renewable sources like solar and wind.

Today, most communities rely heavily on charcoal for cooking and heat. One outcome of this widely available fuel source is deforestation. Also worrisome are well-documented negative health impacts associated with breathing indoor air over a charcoal stove. Many communities in northern Mozambique avoid exposure by cooking in communal kitchens that are located outside the main dwellings. Still, switching to propane, which can be developed from the rich natural gas deposits — it is a favored rural fuel in the United States — would seem to be an appealing choice.

But our visit to the area revealed some unexpected reasons for persistent charcoal preferences. One explanation is cultural. Families that have cooked over wood and charcoal stoves for generations simply don’t trust propane (or natural gas). Generalized unfamiliarity combined with a sharp fear of explosions has rendered many communities reluctant to consider the fuel source. Another reason is financial. Many families can’t afford to buy an entire tank of gas at once, but since charcoal can be sold in much smaller units, they can purchase enough to cover immediate needs. These forces are rational and deep-seated, and should not be misunderstood to mean rural residents are hostile to modernity. At one roadside charcoal stand, my traveling team saw the business owner charging his flip phone in the corner through a small-scale solar battery charger.

Sustainable infrastructure development necessitates attention to these multi-layered and inter-disciplinary dynamics. For the incoming energy companies, there are both structural and non-structural elements. Climate change has altered the planning landscape in myriad ways, rendering new development risky in ways traditional engineers might not grasp. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines risk as a function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. Hazard refers to a physical event like a flood. Exposure highlights assets of value, including communities that may be in harm’s way. Vulnerability offers a measure of how susceptible the location is to harm. For energy companies seeking to build new large-scale infrastructure on Mozambique’s coastline, sea-level rise presents a clear hazard for the new construction and its investors. Meanwhile, local communities are already highly vulnerable. Early speculation about industrial development has focused on the likelihood of mangrove destruction during the building phase. Should that come to pass, the elimination of natural buffers will further expose low-lying villages to inundation. Sustainable development here means careful consideration of these dynamics, including focused investments that can improve local resilience and reduce vulnerability.

Operationalizing sustainable development ideals in the context of rural Mozambique illustrates the many ways in which countervailing forces can undermine even the best intentions. If engineers want to ensure resilient infrastructure development in the face of projected sea rise and amplified disaster risk, they need to have access to current, place-based science and an ability to apply it to every phase of planning and construction. Representatives from Exxon — part of the consortium descending on the country to participate in the natural gas boom — told me their assessment of risks is based largely on past climate patterns and data, not on anything that projects likely future hazards. Insufficient site-specific data impair every element of Exxon’s analysis, and what limited data the company does have are not easily integrated into planning. Simply put, energy firms and government planners lack both access to data and the human expertise to apply them and modify plans accordingly.

Longer-term sustainability requires built-in monitoring and evaluation along with the human capacity to respond to new technical information. Governments need to establish indicator systems, informed by local knowledge, feeding iterative results into ongoing operational reforms. Throughout, actions should address distributive justice and improve equity. In a place like Mozambique, independent for only 44 years, these already daunting process goals must be pursued thoughtfully to avoid validating existing power structures through neocolonialism.
Already, institutions such as the African Development Bank have tremendous control over allocating scarce resources within the country; any influx of new foreign money will, by default, flow mostly to the elite, who then take on the tasks of planning for the entire nation. This pattern disempowers the masses and imposes a western model on an African land base.

These non-structural concerns tend to have more to do with process than outcomes. Strong, transparent leadership, robust stakeholder involvement, and a focus on capacity building are attributes of governance for sustainability. But those are guidelines that only have value if they are deployed in pursuit of larger, more concrete objectives like improved health care or more vocational training. Even when governance is transparent and the process includes opportunities for public involvement, an illiterate, dispersed, rural population has limited avenues for meaningful participation.

As the expected industrial footprint overlaps existing communities, incoming energy companies have also had to consider planning for resettlement. Anadarko’s preliminary EIA includes a draft resettlement plan for 2,733 individuals in 743 households. Among the principles driving this analysis is a stated commitment to the internationally recognized free, prior, and informed consent standard. Those who are likely to be displaced as new energy infrastructure spreads are promised compensation and even improved living standards. But subsistence farmers in remote Mozambique may not have the same metrics as Anadarko planners for what amounts to better conditions.

When we visited subsistence fishermen, they told us the biggest challenge they face is the roving hippos and crocodiles in the lagoon where they fish. Nobody mentioned a need for better education or health care, and broader national economic development seemed irrelevant. And yet, we know quite clearly that sustainable development planning will not control the predators that threaten their daily catch. This is an important disconnect, as it highlights the gulf between what centralized development planners know and what locals experience. Resettlement planning faces this same gulf. If new settlements do in fact offer dramatically different facilities than what is otherwise available in the region, moving a sub-set of the local population into those dwellings risks exacerbating inequities and potentially creating a migratory crush. Such development initiatives are not sustainable, and in fact may result in increased social conflict.

As countries scramble to adapt to early impacts of a changing climate, they often discover that those efforts have unintentionally negative byproducts. The term malad-
aptation refers to a range of ill-conceived climate change responses. Building a new sea wall to guard against rising oceans, for example, may mean an intensive construction project that itself emits greenhouse gases, thereby exacerbating the problem. If that sea wall serves to protect high-value infrastructure, the project may thereby leave lower-income communities at risk. In this way, maladaptation can serve to intensify existing vulnerabilities and even create new ones. Resettlement planning is particularly susceptible to these perils. Dismantling local villages to move residents into sparkling new modern settlements would be both jarring and inappropriate; but, perhaps the alternative is equally problematic. Moving villagers into replicas of their current homemade huts, perhaps with a new plot of land for farming, also does little to advance the region and consigns those individuals to a life of subsistence, all while surrounded by massive oil wealth.

Part of the challenge is the spatial and temporal mismatch that characterizes much of environmental policy. Spatially, our political and administrative boundaries do not align with the way resources are distributed in the landscape. Temporally, our natural resources do not obey a lifecycle that aligns with politics — an officeholder with a limited term to govern a designated territory will face powerful disincentives to impose costs associated with long-term benefits. There is also an element of urgency. Many impoverished countries can’t wait for a decade of environmental analysis before new services are made available, and yet we know that rushing development yields unsustainable results.

What is happening in Mozambique offers a case study in how implementing the ideals contained within sustainable development can be tricky. Solutions may have to come in reconceptualizing what we mean by the term. The all-encompassing Sustainable Development Goals succeed when they remind us that the challenges facing Mozambicans are interconnected. An energy or mineral discovery may open doors to improved education, reduced poverty, and enhanced environmental protection. But without dutiful and rigorous attention to both process and outcomes, such improvements are unlikely. TEF

CENTERPIECE ❧ Mozambique faces the destabilizing influence of sudden mineral wealth as it simultaneously grapples with adapting to climate change. Can the principles of sustainable development guide communities toward equitable, resilient outcomes?

Tax Evasion That Harms the GlobalCommons: No Problem If It's Legal?
Bruce Rich - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Bruce Rich

Illicit financial flows from developing countries total over $1.1 trillion a year, about 5 percent of these nations’ gross national income. In contrast, official development assistance from rich countries to help the poor totaled $146.6 billion in 2017. Numerous studies document how “dirty money” flows support human trafficking, global drug mafias, terrorist networks, and arms smuggling, as well as fueling international wildlife trafficking, poaching, and deforestation.

But another important component of international tax evasion and capital flight is technically legal, namely the use by national and multinational investors and companies of tax havens. A 2016 International Monetary Fund study estimated the long-term loss to developing nations from tax havens at $200 billion a year.

The environmental consequences of this “legal” money laundering are becoming apparent. Studies have linked companies involved in palm oil expansion and deforestation in Indonesia, diamond mining in West Africa, and Singapore pulp and paper companies operating in Indonesian forests to the British Virgin Islands and other tax haven jurisdictions.

A seminal paper published last August in Nature Ecology and Evolution by researchers at Stockholm and Amsterdam universities and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences suggests that tax havens may be playing a significant role in undermining the global environmental commons, particularly the tropical forest biome and ocean fisheries. Using unprecedented access to records of the Brazilian central bank, the researchers found that from 2000 to 2011, 68 percent of the foreign capital investment of the nine most important soya and beef companies operating in the Brazilian Amazon forest was transferred through tax havens, mainly the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, and Netherlands Antilles.

Transfer of these funds resulted in very low or zero corporate taxes, and provided a veil of financial secrecy. The study found that although only 4 percent of all fishing vessels in the world are registered in tax havens, 70 percent of vessels caught in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing violations are registered in tax haven, so-called “flag of convenience” jurisdictions, especially Belize and Panama.

The paper notes that the currrent legal status of tax havens, and associated lack of transparency, make it “difficult, if not impossible, for scholars and policymakers” in many cases to identify the direct environmental and social effects of tax haven capital flows.

But there are important, troubling correlations that need to be investigated more fully. Loss of tax revenue to poorer countries (and added profits for investors) facilitated by tax havens could be viewed, the article states, as massive indirect subsidies — analogous, for example, to fossil fuel subsidies — for environmentally harmful economic activities with global consequences. The authors urge international organizations to undertake independent assessments of the natural capital costs (loss of biodiversity, climate impacts, etc.) of “these until now unquantified subsidies.” National and international legal action based on such research should be a priority in carrying out the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Leading international financial and development institutions are not taking meaningful action on the “legal tax haven” question. A 2016 Oxfam study found that in the previous year 51 of 68 companies supported by the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation in Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 84 percent of IFC investment in the region, were using tax havens. Over the previous five years IFC finance for companies in the region using tax havens doubled.

An October 2018 Foreign Policy article reiterated these criticisms of the IFC, noting that Mauritius (the favored tax haven for IFC Sub-Saharan clients) had 21,000 recorded businesses (the vast majority entailing a physical presence of a paper registration) with assets of over $630 billion, 25 times the country’s GDP. Mauritius provides, as do other tax havens, the benefits of “round-tripping,” whereby company capital is shifted offshore to avoid local taxes and returns disguised as foreign direct investment for which poorer governments often offer tax breaks and other financial incentives.

IFC officials have maintained that the corporate clients it supports use tax havens as a legal and widely accepted practice. In 2016 over 300 of the world’s leading economists, from 30 nations, including Nobel economics laureate Angus Deaton and former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard, wrote a public appeal to world leaders stating that “the existence of tax havens does not add to overall global wealth or well-being; they serve no useful economic purpose. Whilst these jurisdictions undoubtedly benefit some rich individuals and multinational corporations, this benefit is at the expense of others, and they therefore serve to increase inequality.”

Tax evasion that harms the global commons: no problem if it's legal?