No more poverty, no more hunger. Protect the forests and oceans, clean renewable energy for all. World peace. This isn’t a John Lennon song, it’s UN policy.
All these and much much more make up the Sustainable Development Goals – the globally agreed wish list for saving the world and building a better future. If you haven’t heard of them, you’re not alone. Their public outreach leaves a bit to be desired. In any case, they make up the UN’s development agenda up until 2030.
In this post, I’m going to introduce you to what the SDGs are, what’s good about them, and my one problem with the SDGs that actually drives me crazy every time I think about it.
What are the SDGs
The Sustainable Development Goals (aka SDGs or Global Goals) follow on from where the Millennium Development Goals left off, in 2015. They will guide the development priorities for the UN and its agencies, the aid budgets of most wealthy nations and major development charities up until 2030, when it’ll be all change all over again. Here’s the full list:
- 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
As you can see, they’re… Let’s call them ‘stretch targets’.
Others more cynical than I have called them a utopian wishlist more suited to a letter to your fairy godmother than a serious policy statement, or words to that effect. But you know what they say about ambitious goals: even when you don’t hit them you still end up doing pretty well. And to be honest, aren’t these exactly the things we should be aspiring to?
What is amazing about the SDGs
Before I get on to my one glaring problem with the SDGs, I want to take a moment to consider what’s so good about them, particularly in comparison to the old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
They apply to the whole world
.No country has locked down 100% of this stuff. The UK certainly hasn’t. These goals are for every country to work towards, and kisses goodbye to the patronising old development model of ‘developed’ countries that have apparently got it all worked out (yeah, right) and ‘developing’ ones who need help.
.They cover a lot of ground because they understand that poverty and wellbeing are complex, multi-faceted and relate to a lot of different things at once. I like the way the goals are not split up into environmental, social, economic, but instead many of the goals cover all three aspects of sustainability. Goodbye silos.
They’re inclusive and collaborative
When the goals were being drafted, diplomats from each country got to contribute and they also engaged with charities, scientists and academics for their contributions. You may not have been consulted or even told about them until now, but compared to other high-level global policy, this was very inclusive.
My one problem with the SDGs
So the SDGs sound wonderful, right? They do. Really, they do, and overall I think they are a fantastic thing that will do a lot of good in the world. But there’s one problem that I think people should be aware of (and I want to get it off my chest).
One of the goals is liable to contradict the others. Yes there will always be trade-offs and that’s understandable, but in my opinion, one of these goals sticks out like a sore thumb because it just doesn’t fit.
Goal 8 calls for ‘decent work and economic growth’ and I take issue with it for several reasons.
What’s wrong with Goal 8?
Problem 1: it’s a means not an end
This may just be me, but I can’t stand it when you have a list of things and one doesn’t fit with the others. Like if you had a whole list of your favourite books and one of the list items is ‘Waterstones book token’. What the hell is this?! A book token isn’t a book, it’s just a way to get more books! Goal 8 is kind of like the book token here. It isn’t a goal in itself, it’s at best a means to reach other goals. As this article on postgrowth.org puts it: “Growth that is at best a means to reach certain welfare goals is redundant as a development goal in itself.”
Problem 2: Growth doesn’t necessarily benefit the poor
Problem 1 on its own would just be a grammatical pet peeve. What makes it problematic is that it isn’t even a very effective means to achieve the other goals. In fact sometimes it can do the opposite. The most important goal of all the SDGs is to eradicate extreme poverty. The thinking is obviously that economic growth helps with this – but that isn’t actually necessarily true. Of all the wealth produced by growth since 1990, the poorer 60% of the world population only received a pitiful 5% of it. And that’s not even the poorest, that’s over half of all humanity. The very poorest people who need it most got such a tiny sliver it’s almost nothing. Growth is a very inefficient way of helping the poor out of poverty because the vast majority of the wealth goes to the rich, a slice goes to the middle class and the poor just get some crumbs. So, Goal 8 could easily conflict with goals 10 (reduced inequality) and Goal 1 (no poverty).
Problem 3: Growth probably isn’t compatible with a safe climate
There’s no hard evidence that economic growth is compatible with the kind of emissions cuts we need to keep climate change to below 2 degrees. The only time global emissions went down is when we had the 2008 global crash and recession. People get all excited about decoupling when they see that the UK’s economy grew while our direct emissions went down, but that figure for direct emissions doesn’t include ‘embedded emissions’ in consumer goods, and it doesn’t include aeroplane flights or international shipping. We have seen that emissions can hold steady while growth rises, but we need emissions to go down, and fast, and we just don’t know that that can happen with growth. If not, then we need to prioritise climate action (Goal 13) rather than growth (Goal 8).
Problem 4: it shouldn’t be 2 in 1, it’s already an important goal
Unlike the others, goal 8 is a double whammy: decent work and economic growth. They obviously thought those were a natural pair, but they could easily be in conflict, as a company that abuses its workers could make more profit and so contribute more to economic growth. Well-paid workers contribute more to growth than poor ones, because they have more spending power, but healthy workers could contribute less to growth than sick and stressed ones because they won’t be paying for medicines and therapies. All this is because of what a strange and unhelpful metric GDP growth is. Decent work – good jobs that are useful and fulfilling with fair wages and rights – is already a very important goal. Why stick something else in there as well? The way it stands, Goal 8 could even come into conflict with… Goal 8.
Problem 5: it gives companies/governments a loophole to keep doing the same
As well as being unnecessary and counterproductive, the growth part of goal 8 also gives regressive companies and countries a loophole where they can say ‘we’re working on the SDGs!’ when they’re doing anything that will boost growth, even if it goes against the other goals. A study by Ethical Corp found that Goal 8 was in the top 3 of the SDGs that corporates are most keen to engage with. I recently saw a major brand boasting on their website that they were making progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 8. Like… Every other company out there.
The SDGs also sidestep deep systemic issues (but that’s understandable)
The Sustainable Development Goals were never going to be perfect. They have flaws because they are trying to make progress from within the capitalist system we have. They sidestep fundamental causes of poverty like structural readjustments, unfair debts, unfair trade deals, and of course the history of colonialism. They seek to bring the poor and ordinary up, but don’t dare to mention the elephant in the room: that the elite have too much. None of this is surprising and I don’t think the drafters of the SDGs or the UN can be blamed for that. They weren’t going for a radical political statement that would be divisive. They wanted to get everyone on board. Like sustainable development itself, it’s very hard for anyone to disagree with the SDGs as a whole. That means that as well as the UN, charities and governments, they have also had excellent buy-in from corporates, with the likes of Unilever, Coca Cola and H&M using them to inform their ‘corporate responsibility’ and sustainability work. 46% of corporate reps said their business would engage with the SDGs, according to a survey by Ethical Corp. Their engagement is worth a little watering down, given their immense scale.
The SDGs represent real progress. They give everyone across sectors a common language for sustainable development and gets everyone on the same page. They represent a clear roadmap on where we collectively want to go from here. The progress they aspire to can be best realised if we ignore growth and work on the things that matter – which are summed up perfectly with all the other goals.
Your article ignores one crucial fact. Historically, economic growth has played a vital role in vast, permanent poverty reduction. For example, in China, economic growth in recent decades has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. There are countless other examples.
Also, growth is not necessarily incompatible with a safe climate. Remember that growth can come from technological improvement, i.e. using existing resources more efficiently, not just using more resources. For example, the cost per watt of solar power has fallen so far that it is roughly on par with that of fossil fuels, and it continues to show exponential progress. Photovoltaics may soon offer the emissions reductions the world sorely needs.
Thanks for your comment Michael.
Indeed, I didn’t discuss the poverty alleviation and rise in living standards brought about by growth, mainly because this is so well known and well documented that I didn’t think I had much to add on that point.
I absolutely accept that growth has led to rising living standards, especially and most recently in China. Poor countries do need more economic growth to escape poverty.
My point was that growth does not NECESSARILY reduce poverty. The gains from growth can be captured by the rich only, without it trickling down to the poor who need it. This coupled with the environmental destruction it causes makes it a very inefficient form of poverty alleviation.
On the point about efficiency: energy efficiency is certainly necessary and a big part of the solution, but it is not enough to provide endless growth. There are limits to efficiency. You cannot make something out of nothing. Also, see the Jevons Pradox on how efficiency alone can actually lead to greater energy use: http://bigthink.com/politeia/the-energy-efficiency-paradox
Yes, This is the same issue I have. I am the President of Madhvi4EcoEthics, a non-profit founded by my 8 yr old daughter when she was 6. In the name of ‘economy’ many ecosystem crimes are being committed by humans. It’s a big loop-hole for businesses and I feel that the UN forsakes and thwarts its own all other goals just to keep up this goal. Greed, expansion accompanies economy and that’s it, economy morphs to a bulldozer of all other ecosystems.
Left to me the very first goal should BE EDUCATION . In fact no matter all the good words we use to about better climates, sustainable development or even fighting poverty itself. It will book down to EDUCATION because the poor baby time are not even consious of their poverty.
Me for example I live in CAMEROON and I see many struggling parents who as much as earn a small living can’t afford to send their children to Good Schools and that simple reason keep them in generational poverty.
Unfortunately they’re not eve making the difference between what they have and what they could have.
At end of day all the fancy words and corporate metrics don’t do anything to them. Even the China you take as example what about those that are expropriated by the property developpers ? Anyway for me Education is the key to unlock all the problems the society face and keep in mind the poor can also contribute to Researchers that can even improve conditions of living of many in the North and Rich part of the world.