Sustainable Development Goals: A new course for people and planet

Sustainable Development Goals: A new course for people and planet

Arrows, new direction for climate change, sustainable development
ShutterstockRon Ellis
The new sustainable development goals offer an opportunity to rethink the big picture for society and the economy.

The unveiling of the Sustainable Development Goals this week will be a milestone moment for our collective future.

On Sept. 25, the largest gathering of world leaders will join together at a U.N. Summit meeting in New York to formally adopt Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with a set of 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the center.

The launch of the SDGs builds on the Financing for Development Conference in July — where governments agreed to a renewed global framework on how to finance international development — and they should be followed by the adoption of a new global climate agreement in December.

Taken together, these landmark agreements create breakthrough opportunities to transform economies and chart a new course for people and the planet — a future that’s more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable.

4 reasons the SDGs offer hope

The SDGs build on a considerable legacy, extending from the historic 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire this year.

Yet despite some impressive areas of progress along the way, nearly a quarter of humanity continues to live on less than $2 per day, inequalities have worsened dramatically and unsustainable resource use, environmental degradation and climate change march steadily on.

So what is different this time? Will governments exert the political will needed to seize these opportunities for transformative change?

Here are four defining features of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs that should give people reason for hope:

1. An unprecedented global conversation

The U.N. summit to adopt the SDGs marks the culmination of an intergovernmental negotiation process spanning more than two years, involving all 193 member states, and featuring an unprecedented degree of participation by civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders.

Reaching agreement on such a comprehensive and ambitious agenda reflects an emerging consensus across all sectors of society on the limits of our current economic models and the need to change course.

While there still is a long way to go, this globally inclusive process will build ownership of this new shared vision, and help lay the groundwork for future success.

2. A comprehensive agenda, with equity and sustainability at the core

The SDGs build on the momentum generated by the MDGs, but take a major leap forward in bringing together development, environment and climate concerns into a much more holistic and ambitious agenda.

The overriding goal of the SDGs is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to “leave no one behind.”

But the agenda goes much further by targeting key drivers of and barriers to transformative change — aiming to transform economies by making economic growth more inclusive and equitable, achieving decent work for all, decoupling growth from environmental degradation and accelerating the transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient development pathways.

3. An integrated agenda that breaks down silos

Another distinguishing feature of the SDGs is the integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development and their interlinkages within and across the goals.

This builds on a key lesson from the MDGs that sustained systemic change cannot be achieved through single-sector goals and approaches. With this more integrated approach, implementing the SDGs will require breaking down traditional silos for more cross-sectoral decision-making and solutions.  

4. A universal agenda, requiring action by all

The SDGs are a universal agenda that reflects the global nature of the challenges and opportunities we collectively face. This is one of the biggest shifts from the MDGs, which were based on the prevailing North-South model of development cooperation.

Under the SDGs, all countries and all sectors of society need to act. This is reflected in the call for a renewed “Global Partnership for Sustainable Development” that goes “beyond aid” by emphasizing shared responsibilities and contributions by all countries — based on principles of equity and fairness commensurate with national circumstances and capabilities.

The SDGs also call for doing development differently, including through greater and more effective use of multi-stakeholder partnerships to advance the kind of inclusive, integrated and scalable solutions capable of realizing system-wide change.

5 big questions going forward

All of the above features contribute to setting a transformative agenda. But big challenges lie ahead in translating words and good intentions into action and real change on the ground. Here are five big questions to watch in the coming days:

1. Building national ownership and ambition

Will countries take the necessary steps to adapt the ambition of the global goals and targets to their national context and embed them into local and national policies and investment priorities? Will governments secure high-level leadership in their implementation, including Ministries of Finance, Economy and Planning?

2. Engaging the private sector

Will the private sector — both enterprises and the financial sector — step up and seize opportunities to align their strategies and business models to support the SDGs?

3. Empowering local actors

Will local authorities, organizations and communities be empowered with the rights, resources, capacities and incentives to drive development and scale up solutions?

4. Mobilizing and effectively using finance

Will new commitments be made to bolster confidence that the financing needed to achieve the SDGs will materialize (from both public and private and domestic and international sources), and will steps be taken to build a more coherent architecture for the effective use of development, climate and global environmental finance?

5. Ensuring accountability

Will sufficiently robust and inclusive mechanisms be put into place to ensure participation, transparency and accountability in monitoring SDG implementation and results?

The SDGs present a new approach to development that reflects shifting global dynamics. How these questions play out will be a strong indicator of whether the world follows through on the groundbreaking potential of this new agenda.

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