UN Sustainable Development Goals

Definition

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan adopted by world leaders to end poverty and inequality around the world and address climate change.

Purpose

The SDGs are not laws, but rather, they are specific guidelines that serve as a framework for governments to use in setting their own goals and plans. The purpose of the goals is to ensure a sustainable future, improve the wellbeing of communities and the people who live in them, to promote peace and prosperity, and to safeguard the planet. The SDG framework includes 17 goals addressing climate change, renewable energy, health, and food and water availability. Many of these problems transcend national or even continental borders. Climate change, for example, now affects every country in the world, although not every country contributes equally to pollution and other causes. The UN Agenda for Sustainable Development envisages a world in which there is universal respect for human rights, human dignity, and diversity. Global monitoring of SDG progress is designed to help track success.

Description

The sustainability goals are part of a broader effort led by the United Nations (UN). The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has a platform that resolves to end poverty and hunger, promote equality, and protect the planet and its natural resources. The goals interact in many ways. For example, poverty affects more than just income. When people are extremely poor, they often have limited education opportunities and can suffer from hunger or malnutrition. Refining agricultural resources, along with increasing the availability of clean water supplies and adequate sanitation systems, can mitigate many of the disease processes that disproportionately affect poor people and communities. The UN estimates that without action, at least one in four people will live in a country with chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water by 2050. Solving water and food crises requires conservation efforts, new ways of approaching industries, and planning and paying for infrastructure to ensure communities have safe drinking water, access to food and health care, and sanitation. Sustainable energy improves lives, jobs, and economies, while also protecting the planet.

The 17 UN Sustainability Goals, summarized:

Together, the 17 goals comprise 169 targets developed to help reach the goals. Many countries, regions within countries, and individuals are more vulnerable than others to the effects of poverty and climate change. The least developed countries, those that are landlocked and developing, and small-island developing states face the greatest challenges with infrastructure, industry, and economy. These challenges add to poverty and poor quality of life for people who live in these areas. Even within countries, however, there is a growing divide between the poorest and richest residents and too little economic growth to bridge the gap. In developed countries, cities can be overcrowded or lack affordable housing.

Origins

The UN SDGs build upon the eight Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) set by the UN in 2000, which served as a blueprint to eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease by a target date of 2015. In response to the strides achieved by the MDGs, in September 2015, more than 150 world leaders met and adopted the SDGs at a UN Sustainable Development Summit held at the UN headquarters in New York City. The meeting occurred as the United Nations celebrated its seventieth anniversary. More than 193 countries agreed to the SDGs after negotiations.

Results

The results of the SDGs are based on a 2030 timeline, and as of 2018 even interim results will not be available for some time. However, results from MDGs showed that extreme poverty was cut in half between 1990 and 2015. In addition, goals for equal access to education for girls and boys led to some success. Despite success in this area, many women and girls still experience discrimination and violence in every part of the world. The UN released a discussion of progress toward the MDGs in 2012, partly to help form the basis for the 2030 agenda and SDGs.

The UN MDG report stressed successes such as providing an operational framework for international efforts, mobilizing support, and fostering cooperation. The MDGs also influenced global policy debates. However, many efforts fell short. Criticisms were leveled from some regarding how the MDG indicators for success were selected and measured. Further, countries had to learn how to craft their national targets to match global goals while being realistic, achievable, and measurable. Most notably, the least developed countries and poorest people remained at a disadvantage, and inequality of results or measurements still was found based on gender, age, disability, or ethnicity. As a result, the SDGs were designed to reach first the countries and people furthest behind in the goals and to improve how global partners work together. For example, developed countries will need to help developing countries with infrastructure. Standardizing data and using available technology to track progress also might help ensure success.

KEY TERMS
Biodiversity—
A variety of different species and genetic variance in a given ecosystem that functions to support the survival of the species in that ecosystem.
Desertification—
Overuse of agricultural or range land to the point that it is desert-like and soils erode easily.
Infrastructure—
The physical and organizational structures that support a society, such as roads, bridges, and distribution of water and energy.
Land degradation—
Decreased ability of land to support crops, livestock, or species that naturally live there.
Renewable energy—
Energy from natural resources that is self-replenishing, such as solar and wind.
Sustainability—
The ability of Earth systems, including economies and cultural systems, to survive and adapt to changing environments.
Water scarcity—
A lack of water resources needed to meet demand for water usage in an area or region.

Research and general acceptance

An example of global support of the SDG agenda is the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, the first universal, legally binding global climate contract, originated at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Following this summit, the agreement was ratified by the European Union, which enabled its entry into force in November 2016. As of March 2018, nearly 200 countries have agreed to and signed the agreement. President Barack Obama signed the accord in 2016, but President Donald Trump signaled that he would withdraw unless the United States could alter the terms of the agreement. However, the agreement cannot be withdrawn until 2020.

One of the aims of the SDGs was to restructure how global partners and networks gather data and evaluate success. Additionally, the SDGs demand greater involvement of scientists around the world than did the MDGs. Therefore, as of 2017, confusion remained regarding the differences between the MDGs and SDGs and how countries needed to ensure partnerships to achieve global goals along with goals for their own nation. A challenge of the SDGs is transforming how social scientists, scientists and academics, policy makers, and industry work together within and among countries for long-term solutions. This requires acceptance and commitment from all parties and excellent organization. Some have criticized the challenging and broad nature of the goals, saying there are too many SDGs, and they are not focused enough.

See also Air pollution ; Climate change .

Resources

BOOKS

Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott E. Spoolman. Living in the Environment, 18th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Thiele, Leslie Paul. Sustainability: Key Concepts, 3nd ed. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.

PERIODICALS

Bhore, Subhash J. “Global Goals and Global Sustainability.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 10 (December 2016): 991.

Kummu, M., et al. “The World's Road to Water Scarcity: Shortage and Stress in the 20th Century and Pathways Towards Sustainability.” Scientific Reports 6 (December 9, 2016): 38495.

Lu, Yonglong, et al. “Policy: Five Priorities for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.” Nature 6 (April 9, 2015): 432–33.

United Nations. “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015.” http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/MDG%202015%20rev%20 (July%201).pdf (2015).

WEBSITES

European commission. “Climate Action: Paris Agreement.” https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en (accessed May 20, 2018).

Thomson, Stephanie. “What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?” World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/09/what-are-the-sustainabledevelopment-goals/ (accessed March 31, 2018).

United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goals.” http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainabledevelopment-goals/ (accessed March 31, 2018).

United Nations. “UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda.” http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/mdg_assessment_Aug.pdf (accessed March 30, 2018).

UN Sustainable Development. “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” United Nations. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld (accessed March 30, 2018).

ORGANIZATIONS

United Nations Environmental Programme, 7 bis, Avenue de la Paix, 1202, Geneva, Switzerland, 41 (22) 730-8636, http://www.un.org .

Teresa G. Odle, BA, ELS

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.