What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals and why do they matter?

I spend a lot of time at work (and on this blog) talking about the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I figured it was about time I gave them a dedicated blog post to properly introduce them. Read on if you would like to find out more about:

  • What are the Sustainable Development Goals?
  • Why do they matter?
  • Are we making progress towards them?
  • How are they relevant to everyone as individuals?

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals which the countries of the United Nations (UN) have agreed to achieve by 2030. They have been in place since 2015, when the 15-year commitment period for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ended.

While the eight MDGs were primarily focused on tackling extreme poverty, the SDGs take a much broader view. They define what a sustainable future looks like for all countries, with goals that contribute to the needs of people, prosperity and the planet.

Image source: United Nations

The SDGs are also known as the Global Goals. I rather prefer this name as it reflects that the goals are global in the sense that they apply to the entire world, but also in the sense that they apply across all parts of society. No matter what your profession, there will be at least one goal that you can influence…so best to make it a positive influence!

At first the goals seem overwhelmingly high level and vague. (Gender equality? Sure, sounds great, but what does that actually mean?).
The goals actually have slightly more descriptive full titles than those shown in the image above – ‘Gender equality’ is ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’. The 17 goals are underpinned by 169 targets and 232 indicators, and this is where the SDGs become a bit more tangible.

Why do the SDGs matter?

There are many different targets, agendas, goals and ambitions in the world. The SDGs stand out because:

  • Everyone has signed up to them. In September 2015, 193 countries of the United Nations agreed on the goals, following an extensive global consultation process. There is an underlying commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ in working towards the goals.
  • They provide a common and shared understanding of what the world we want to live in looks like by 2030. Sustainability is a bit of an ambiguous concept, but through the goals, targets, and indicators, it is possible to envision what a sustainable world might look like.
  • They are holistic and comprehensive. Together the goals cover all the important challenges that the world faces, from the climate crisis through to social inequality.

I sometimes speak to people (even sustainability professionals) who have ‘goal fatigue’ – a term that I just made up to describe the disillusionment that comes with seeing agreed goals and targets slip by without being achieved. For example, while many of the targets of the MDGs were achieved, some were not and it was the most vulnerable groups that were left behind. However, we did make progress with the MDGs, and much more progress than might have been made without the goals.

And so it seems obvious to me that we should work towards the SDGs, because even if every single target isn’t achieved, the world will still be a better place than it would be otherwise.

Are we making progress towards the SDGs?

The SDGs apply over the period from 2015 to 2030. We are already over a quarter of the way through, so how it the world going with achieving the SDGs?

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes an index and dashboards that track progress towards the SDGs each year. The 2019 data will be available in a few weeks. Data from 2018 showed that Sweden is leading the way in terms of implementing the SDGs, with Denmark, Finland, Germany and France rounding out the top 5 (no big surprises there!).

A global summary of the SDG Index scores are shown below, with darker blue indicating greater progress. Progress towards each indicator is assessed on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the optimum score. The average of all scores for each SDG is taken, so that each is considered equally. More information on the methodology is available here.

Mapping the global SDG index. Source: UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network

It is clear that further action is needed by all countries, no one has achieved all the SDGs yet. I highly recommend having a play around with the index, it is fascinating to see how different countries are making progress towards the SDGs.

How are the SDGs relevant to me?

“For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society and people like you.”

– The United Nations

The SDGs are a framework for action at a national scale. As an individual person, it is a bit tricky to understand how to contribute to and support progress to the SDGs.

The Good Life Goals

To bridge this gap, sustainable communications agency Futerra, along with a bunch of partners, has developed the Good Life Goals. The Good Life Goals translate the principles and themes of the SDGs into tangible actions that everyone can take in their everyday lives.

Image source: Futerra

For example, Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable) becomes ‘Love where you live’ and includes actions like ‘Get to know your neighbours and welcome new people’.

And 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) becomes ‘Make peace’ and includes actions like ‘Be kind and tolerant’.

Image source: Futerra

Many of these actions are things that we may already do, or are relatively simple to implement. But if everyone collectively adopts them, they can make a huge contribution to the SDGs and a positive future more generally.

This adorable video has an introduction, and you can find out more over on their website or check out the full action list here.

The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World

The United Nations have also published their own easy steps that individuals can adopts to support the SDGs – entitled the ‘Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World’ – sounds simple enough!

It has actions grouped into four levels:

  1. Things you can do from your couch
  2. Things you can do from home
  3. Things you can do in your neighbourhood
  4. Things you could do at work

Again, if you have been thinking about sustainable living for a while, many of these actions are probably already habits that you no longer even think about. But it is a nice, simple list to check through, pick up a few actions and share with others.

Want to find out more about the SDGs?

17 goals, 169 targets, 232 indicators…that is a lot to talk about in one blog post! This post just starts to explore the SDGs and what they mean for us all. Have a read of the links sprinkled throughout the post, and those below, if you’d like to find out more.

  • The UN Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform is exactly what is sounds like – it has information on each goal, including targets, indicators and updates on global progress towards the goal.
  • The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network published a very comprehensive guide to Getting Started with the Sustainable Development Goals back in 2015 on Medium. If you are interested in the background to the SDGs, then give Chapter 1 a read.
  • There are a growing number of books on the SDGs. Top of my reading list at the moment is The Trillion Dollar Shift by Marga Hoek, which is open access and available to read here.
  • One of the most challenging aspects of the SDGs is balancing the needs of people and the planet. The Stockholm Resilience Centre have determined that it is possible to achieve the SDGs within the planetary boundaries, but only with transformative action.

P.S. This is a picture of me showing off my SDG pin. Its kind of like the Deathly Hallows symbol – if you see someone else with one you know they are working towards a more sustainable future too!

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