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Sustainable Development Goals - where are we at?

Topics: Building Communities,Conserving Nature,Human Wellbeing | Comments

The concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was created in 2012, at the United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development, called Rio+20. This marked the 20th anniversary since the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio, when Climate Change first became a serious issue on the global agenda.

The SDGs are planned as the successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were developed in 2000 after the UN Millennium Summit, in a historic attempt to globalise eight key social priorities, such as addressing poverty, disease, hunger and environmental degradation. The expiry date for the MDGs goals is 2015, yet it is apparent that despite dedicated work by many nations and people, some of the goals in the MDGs, such as achieving universal primary education, will not be achieved.

The SDGs will determine the future development agenda beyond 2015. Like the MDGs, they focus on the three key dimensions of development: economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. They are designed to build on the successes achieved with the MDGs but also to address their shortcomings.

One of the criticisms has been that the integration between the three dimensions of development was not sufficiently addressed with the MDGs. Another was that the role of environmental considerations as a key for development was underplayed, with the eradication of poverty seen as the overarching goal and the role of sustainability in addressing poverty discounted. A third was that the MDGs targeted poorer countries, while requiring funding from richer countries; funding that in some cases never eventuated. The SDGs are expected to address these concerns.

The SDGs are also expected to be applicable to and binding on all countries, with the hope of achieving consensus on the goals and making them action-oriented, requiring all UN member countries to take tangible steps towards achieving the goals. Accountability and transparency are considered to be of key importance, with the need for funding to be allocated to ensure the goals are met. It has also been mooted that ensuring the goals are not ‘traded off’ against each other is important so that, for example, economic development cannot come at a cost to the environment: the three dimensions must be considered as not only concurrent goals but also as intersecting and overlapping ones.

The task of preparing the SDGs was given to an Open Working Group (OWG) of the UN General Assembly, established in early 2013. The challenges the Group has faced in drafting the SDGS have been huge: to whittle down in an agreement a set of key goals that encompass the  ambitious and broad advances that the diverse member nations would like to see happen.

After the thirteenth meeting of the OWG in July 2014, the final proposal of SDGs was put forward, which includes 17 goals and 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. These include eradicating poverty and hunger, education for all, gender equality and universal access to water and sanitation. In terms of environmental goals, included are items relating to sustainable consumption and production patterns, taking urgent action to address climate change, and making inroads to conserve and protect oceans and forests and to halt biodiversity loss.

The post-2015 development agenda reinforces the three interlinked principles as stated in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). These are:

Leave no one behind by sustainably meeting basic environmental and social standards

  • Live within the Earth’s safe operating space, while promoting equitable prosperity and sustainable growth
  • Build up assets for the benefit and prosperity of future generations.[1]

The post-2015 development agenda was at the forefront when the United Nations General Assembly convened in September 2014. The President of the UN General Assembly, Sam Kahamba Kutesa, in his opening address, implored member states to “approach this 69th session with a sense of urgency, hope and greater cooperation”.

He went on to state that, “To preserve planet Earth for ourselves and succeeding generations, the international community has an obligation to address the effects of climate change, which threaten humankind’s very existence.”[2]

Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, also called for quicker progress to address the development agenda.

“The world must rally together to move ahead on climate change, advance the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples, improve the health of women and girls, take on Ebola and address an array of peace and security challenges.”[3]

As the nations of the world consider the SDGs, as proposed by the OWG, there is no doubt that the challenges facing the globe have increased and become more urgent since the adoption of the MDGs over a decade ago. The world’s population continues to soar, which is in turn increasing the demand for food. At the same time, pollution and climate change, as well as loss of biodiversity, present enormous challenges in ensuring people have adequate food, shelter, and access to health and education. Pronounced worsening in social inequality has occurred as these pressures have increased, making the adoption of sustainable practices in a world of limited resources more important than ever.

The SDGs and the post-2015 agenda are now part of a global conversation among member countries, NGOs and other organisations. Negotiations on the SDGs as proposed by the OWG will continue over coming months. It is expected that a final version of the SDGs will be adopted in the second half of 2015. (For a full list of the SDGs as they now stand, please visit

However, concerns have already been raised about the proposed SDGs, including that there are too many goals and with urging from some commentators that the UN “must balance ambition with practicality”.[4]

Others have suggested that cost of tackling the goals, as well as the costs of measuring how well we tackle the goals, will be obstacles.[5] While there is support for clarity about the nexus between human health and the environment, there is apprehension that the eradication of poverty will be downgraded in importance.

While it is recognised that the MDGs achieved a good deal, especially by facilitating cooperation and collaboration between nation states around a set of goals—also termed a “culture of purpose”[6]— there is the danger that if there are seen to be too many goals, or too many unachievable targets, the impetus for change will diminish as countries put the goals in the “too-hard basket”.

The next twelve months will be crucial as nation states continue to debate and discuss the Sustainable Developments Goals before their anticipated adoption late in 2015. Getting the balancing act right between making the goals neither too broad nor too narrow, and taking account of long-term goals that include environmental sustainability, as well as those that are achievable in the shorter term, will be needed to get all countries to agree to their adoption. It will be a true test of our global problem-solving ability and the capacity to harness knowledge and expertise from organisations and people everywhere.









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