The Role of Diplomats in Sustainability

July 2023

How diplomacy plays an active role in protecting the planet? 

Sustainability has become a global priority in recent decades, with governments, businesses, and individuals recognising the need for long-term vision and enlightened self-interest. The unprecedented global sustainability challenges that we face today - climate change, forest degradation, poverty, and food security – serve to remind us of the need for cooperation across borders, sectors, and generations.


The United Nations has been spearheading two major ongoing diplomatic efforts: to define a sustainable development agenda for the world, and to protect the planet from the effects of climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015. This international action plan recognises the need for inclusive participation and effective stakeholder engagement for the successful implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Founded on the spirit of global partnership, the Agenda is a call to action for all stakeholders in all countries – both developed and developing - to implement SDGs in five critical areas - people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. At its heart are the 17 SDGs on poverty eradication, food security, health, education, basic infrastructure, climate change mitigation and adaptation, economic growth, gender and decent work.


The pandemic has highlighted that investing in the Sustainable Development Goals is now more relevant than ever. And certain SDG-related sectors – including health, infrastructure, water and sanitation, food and agriculture, climate change mitigation and adaptation, among others – have become investment priorities for many countries as a result. 

In this context, the role of diplomats in promoting and implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs) has gained prominence in safeguarding geopolitical stability and for cooperation, as more than ever, international assistance is needed to deal with the multiple health and security crisis intensified by the deepening climate emergency and their economic and social impacts.


Diplomats play an important role by supporting efforts to promote and facilitate investment in their countries, including in SDG-related sectors. As governments are adopting new forms of investment promotion and facilitation post-pandemic, many are turning to their embassies abroad to support their mission. Having a permanent presence in strategic market locations abroad can be helpful to support a diplomatic mission to attract investment, including in SDG sectors. Geographic reach through a physical presence overseas is a critical factor in investor outreach and facilitation. 


Some diplomatic agencies have overseas offices for this purpose. Those in countries with higher gross domestic product typically have larger networks of overseas offices. However, many countries, particularly low-income countries, do not have the resources to maintain such networks, and many have no overseas presence at all. 


In the absence of overseas representations, diplomats can act as liaisons to facilitate links with potential investors. This can prove to be a relatively cost-efficient and effective method of lead generation and investment facilitation, and a means to multiply the outreach of diplomatic activities abroad. 

Diplomats are crucial in making change – supporting the formulation of policies and strategies, mobilising and allocating funds, and negotiating and monitoring development interventions. Diplomats can engage at several stages of the investment promotion cycle, including identifying SDG investment stakeholders in the locations where they are posted, promoting SDG sectors and projects to targeted investors, handling investor enquiries, facilitating partnerships, providing aftercare and pursuing stakeholder feedback to contribute to policy advocacy efforts. 


The commitments made by governments with respect to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can only be fulfilled through international cooperation and partnerships in which diplomats are essential. 


Effectively engaging diplomats in the promotion and facilitation of sustainable investment needs adequate resources and encouragement, as well as training and support; to build relevant networks of stakeholders at home and abroad is crucial in the pursuit of global security and sustainable development.


Sustainable diplomacy, with its focus on long-term vision, cooperation, and reflexivity, provides a new approach to international relations as diplomats can help mainstream conflict-sensitive sustainability action into peacebuilding, humanitarian aid, and development cooperation. And they can also play their part by integrating sustainable development throughout the strands and forums of foreign policy.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark promotes Sustainable Development Goals at international roundtables, in their bilateral collaborations and through their development aid. They launched a Sustainability Initiative in 2019 to create a more climate friendly and inclusive workplace, with a vision to become one of the world’s five most sustainable foreign services before 2025. 


Key progress made on the Sustainability Initiative:

  • 50% reduction in energy consumption from Ministry buildings in Copenhagen by 2020 compared to 2006, by switching to low-energy LED light bulbs, new pumps, and adjustments to their ventilation system. 
  • A pledge to enhance energy efficiency and install solar power panels to cover 10% of energy consumption at home. 
  • A push for clean energy transition – especially in countries where access to renewables is limited. Solar panels have been installed at several embassies, including Pretoria, Ouagadougou, Brasilia, Washington and Accra. In Accra, it reduced energy consumption by 46% within a year and in Washington, the panels reduced carbon emissions by 3 tonnes in one month.
  • Many of their diplomatic missions abroad have put up charging stations for electric vehicles and opted for hybrid or electric vehicles. The Embassy in Nairobi was the first diplomatic mission with an EV in Kenya.
  • Reduction in emissions from meat consumption in their canteen in the Home Service by introducing a vegetarian day, installing waste separation solutions, and putting a stop to single-use plastics. 
  • 29 diplomatic missions around the world advance the green agenda bilaterally and multilaterally. They also advance sustainability locally by implementing annual Sustainability Action Plans to build climate friendly and more inclusive workplaces and contribute positively to local environments. Examples of some initiatives include:
  • Abu Dhabi - introduced waste separation and recycling to push for change in a country where waste separation is not a common practice 
  • New Delhi - harvest and reuse rainwater
  • New York Consulate General - installed beehives on the rooftop of the Denmark House to enhance local floral and plant diversity in the city.