The Sustainable Development Goals: Game-changer or good-looking rehash?

From Agenda 21 to the Millennium Development Goals and beyond

By Peter Burnett

Australia, along with most nations in the world, has signed up to the Sustainability Development Goals (or SDGs for short), the UN’s latest effort to broker a pathway forward to a more sustainable future. How are we going in our efforts to meet the SDGs? And, indeed, is there any value in the SDG approach? I’m a tad cynical but the SDGs have definitely put a new face on sustainability.

The value of SDGs came into sharp focus for me last week at a conference in Melbourne titled ‘Why Should the Public Sector Care About Sustainable Development?’ (I think the answer to the conference-title question is simple: our future depends on it.) One of the conference presenters was John Thwaites, former Victorian Deputy Premier and Environment Minister, now a Professorial Fellow and Chair of the National Sustainable Development Council (NSDC), an NGO. John’s topic was the Sustainable Development Goals. Last year the NSDC released a progress report on SDG implementation in Australia, hot on the heels of Australia’s first official progress report.

John spoke with some passion about the value of the SDGs and gave examples of how they were influencing actual decisions by government and non-government bodies alike. Having been more focused on government policy-making, I had not considered his argument that the SDGs were gaining some real traction due to their social influence. So I thought it was time for another look: are the SDGs breathing new life into sustainable development?

Origins of the SDGs

Before answering that question, some history. The SDGs are a set of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The UN describes them as a ‘shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet’.

You’ve probably seen the catchy 17-tiled SDG infographic, as it gets quite a lot of exposure (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Countries made their original commitment to sustainable development at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The summit adopted the Rio Declaration, which sets out some 27 sustainability principles, along with a 350-page action plan called Agenda 21 (an agenda for the 21st Century).

The problem was that, to get everyone on board, rich countries had to make commitments to poor countries based on a principle of ‘intra-generational equity’. In essence this came down to promising poor countries that they wouldn’t lose the opportunity to develop, and to consume their fair share of the environmental resource pie in doing so, just because the rich countries had already eaten most of it.

Of course, this implied that the rich countries would henceforth constrain their own consumption. With the deal done and the pressure seemingly off, the rich countries went home and, unsurprisingly, did not consume less to free up resources for poor countries. So when everyone met again, at ‘Rio+5’ in New York in 1997, the poor countries objected strongly and the meeting almost collapsed.

The MDGs

Giving up on sustainable development wasn’t really an option. So they had another go, this time endorsing eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to mark the new century. The MDGs focused on poverty, with only one goal embodying a commitment to environmental sustainability*. The target date was 2015.

The MDGs breathed some life back into the sustainability. Real progress was made, though I think this was made possible by allowing the rising tide of economic growth to lift all boats, particularly in China, at the expense of ongoing environmental decline.

In any event, the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 decided that the MDGs warranted follow-on goals, and so the SDGs came to pass. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs reflect a more even balance between social and environmental goals, with five of seventeen goals having an environmental focus. The SDG’s also have some real substance, with 17 goals supported by 169 targets and 232 indicators.

Australia and the SDGs

The proof of the pudding however is in the eating. Australia’s first implementation report to the UN is simply a compilation of actions taken by governments and others that align with the SDGs. Further, while some good things are reported (eg, the National Disability Insurance Scheme), others are glossed over. The report for example refers to government support for Ramsar wetlands, omitting mention of the small amounts involved. Still other things are trivialised: the section on ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ reports that community gardens are increasingly popular, supported by ‘grass-roots’ organisations!

Irrespective of how good the reported measures are, the government makes no claim that the SDGs have driven any change in domestic policy and files its report under ‘aid’ on the DFAT website. Clearly the SDGs are not a game-changer from the government’s point of view.

The NSDC report is more analytical, using a ratings scheme under which Australia scores an overall 6.5/10. While this corresponds to a university ‘credit’ grade, averaging conceals a wide spread of ratings. We are best in looking after ourselves, scoring 8.9 in health and education, and worst at sharing, rating 4.4 on climate action (ie, sharing the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution with future generations) and 4.3 on reduced inequalities.

Are the SDGs making a difference?

I’m sure John is right and that the SDGs are gaining some traction, including in ways not readily measured. But is that influence putting a dent in the underlying problem, that we are consuming environmental resources more quickly than nature can replace them?

The NSDC answers this question itself, opening its report with the comment that despite strong economic growth, ‘our children and grandchildren face the prospect of being worse off than we are as a result of increasing inequality, environmental degradation and climate change.’

A key problem is that while the SDGs are new in some respects, they are old in others. The goals, targets and performance measures are new, but the underlying principles are not. The UN Resolution adopting the SDGs in 2015 simply calls up the earlier principles and resolutions, such as those from Rio in 1992. This means that governments (and the rest of us) have no new reason for taking the hard decisions that sustainability requires, to keep the pursuit of economic development within nature’s capacity to replace what we consume.

Trumped by the short term

This is the reason for my cynicism. Because there is nothing new foundationally in the SDGs, short term political imperatives to grow the economy will continue to trump normative or moral obligations to share available resources with future generations and poor countries, no matter how often those obligations are repeated.

I’m sure John Thwaites is right and that the SDGs are making a difference. It’s just that they don’t contain anything that would make a fundamental difference. As a result, I expect that, short of a crisis, we will continue to play the game and report actions that are consistent with the SDGs, without actually changing our ways.

*The MDGs were later endorsed at ‘Rio+10’, the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg, 2002. These ‘Rio+’ conferences are now a thing, with Rio+30 due in 2022.

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