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What on earth are Sustainable Development Goals?


Earlier this month, following three years of negotiation, 193 governments from around the world came together at UN Headquarters in New York to agree 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But what are they and why are they important for WWF, the UK and the rest of the world? In this first of a series of blogs, we set out to demystify the SDGs.

Sea weed farmer checking floating sea weed field. Philippines © Jürgen Freund / WWFSea weed farmer checking floating sea weed field. Philippines © Jürgen Freund / WWF

What are they?

The SDGs (PDF) are 17 international goals that set out the shared ambitions of countries to transition to a world that is fairer, more prosperous for all, and more sustainable. The vision is that by agreeing to work together to promote forms of development that don’t wreck the planet, the nations of the world can deliver better lives for everyone, for the long term.

Countries will be expected to use the goals, and their accompanying 169 targets – which provide more specifics on the action required – to shape their policies over the next 15 years with the aim of eradicating poverty and achieving global sustainable development. While the commitments are not legally binding, countries will be expected to report on the progress that they are making against the goals at the national, regional and global level.

The SDGs will be formally signed off by world leaders in New York in late September. The goals are then expected to come into force at the start of 2016.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Why are they important?

They recognise that we depend on the planet’s natural resources for our social and economic wellbeing . We all rely on forests, rivers, oceans and land for food, energy, income, shelter, medicine and more. Poverty and inequality therefore cannot be addressed without also paying attention to ecosystems that underpin them. The SDGs acknowledge that the social, economic and environmental challenges that we face (PDF) are all interlinked and provide an integrated approach to address them.

Margaret Wanjiru Mundia with axe, Upper Catchment, Lake Naivasha, Kenya © WWF / Simon RawlesMargaret Wanjiru Mundia with axe, Upper Catchment, Lake Naivasha, Kenya © WWF / Simon Rawles

The SDGs are universal, meaning that all countries are expected to implement all the goals. This is not just an agenda for the poor. Developed countries , like the UK, will also be have to come up with a plan to ensure that they meet the goals and targets at home, as well as supporting sustainable development elsewhere. Domestic policies to invest in renewable energy, improve supply chains and incentivise more sustainable consumption, in addition to having positive impacts in the UK can also help combat climate change, ensure fair and safe work for all and achieve more efficient use of resources globally.

They are the result of government consensus and public input.  Unlike the previous international poverty goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were designed by a handful of experts in a back room at the UN, the SDGs have been crafted from three years of government discussions and unprecedented civil society and public consultation. It is an agenda by the people, and for the people. The SDGS will therefore be scrutinized by governments, civil society and the public alike.  The pressure is on!

If all countries commit themselves to a different way of doing things and to working together with business and civil society to deliver the goals, we could be at the beginning of a period of real change.  If achieved, the SDGs have the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty, address the climate change crisis, decarbonise our economies and safeguard the forests, rivers and oceans that we depend on. They have the potential to create a world where people and nature can both thrive.  Not a small thing!

What do they mean for WWF?

We have been involved throughout the drafting of the SDGs working to ensure that the environmental aspects of sustainable development run right through them.  The result is that the SDGs include a lot of  the things that are important to us, including goals on: food and sustainable agriculture; water; energy; sustainable consumption and production; climate change; oceans; and ecosystems, forests and biodiversity.

A girl farming, Lamahai, Nepal © Simon de TREY-WHITE / WWF-UKA girl farming, Lamahai, Nepal © Simon de TREY-WHITE / WWF-UK

There are opportunities for us to develop new partnerships with civil society and businesses to support the implementation of these plans.  From Nepal to Tanzania we are already bringing governments, communities and the private sector together to do business in new and sustainable ways – and the results could be scaled up.

So we must keep pushing for further action from governments around the world.  In the UK, this means a strong 25-year plan to protect nature, and a clear framework for investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency.  Internationally, it means acting on the specific SDG commitment to fight climate change by pushing for a strong deal in the forthcoming climate negotiations in Paris and ensuring the UK only supports development that works in harmony with nature.

It’s easy to be cynical about the SDGs, which have been dismissed by some as too ambitious. Yet, we have no alternative than to fight for the values they represent, and to support practical steps that can make those values a reality for people and planet.

Next week: we look at what Wales are doing to make the SDGs a reality.

What do you think of SDG’s? Leave us your comments.

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