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Sustainable development goals: much more than just a group picture

25 September 2015
by Guest author

SDG Christian KrollChristian Kroll, expert on sustainability at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project manager

When world leaders from all UN member countries meet today in New York for the largest ever gathering of heads of state, it will be about so much more than a unique photo opportunity. Beyond the grand gestures and speeches, we are going to have to ask our leaders if they have done their homework. Seventeen new goals will be adopted at the summit in order to guide public policy over the next fifteen years: the Sustainable Development Goals. They follow on from the Millennium Development Goals, which have helped to halve child mortality, as well as fight hunger and disease since 2000. The key difference is that these new goals will be universal and include the high-income nations of this world – not just as donor countries for development assistance. The Sustainable Development Goals will demand fundamental policy changes in the rich countries themselves. These goals have the power to question the way we live, how we structure our economies, the way we produce, the way we consume. They can highlight the particular responsibilities of the rich nations for sustainable development and spark much-needed reform debates.

A first systematic assessment of how the rich nations perform with regard to all of the seventeen new goals reveals that most OECD nations are currently on track to fail the targets that they are about to set for themselves. The analysis was published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung with the support of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network just ahead of the historic summit. In his foreword, Kofi Annan, who was the driving force behind the Millennium Development Goals, writes: “This study will hopefully spark reform debates on sustainability and social justice in many high-income countries. We owe it to our planet and its people”.

In fact, the rich nations must take immediate policy steps to make their economic and social model more sustainable and inclusive. But we are not starting from zero: We can and must learn from each other. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland perform best across the 17 new UN goals. These countries show that a strong economy with employment-to-population rates in the case of Sweden of 75 percent (ranked 4th of 34 OECD countries) can go together with sound social policies and an environmentally friendly infrastructure (the share of renewable energy in Sweden is 47 percent, ranked 3rd). By the way, these are also among the world’s happiest countries, thereby deconstructing the myth that a sustainable lifestyle is one where you will have to forsake all those precious things that make you happy.

Most high-income nations, however, are on the wrong track with economic systems that widen the gap between rich and poor, and their highly un-sustainable consumption and production patterns. In 23 OECD countries, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population now earns at least as much as the poorest 40 percent. The earnings of the richest 10 percent in the USA are even 1.7 times as great as those of the poorest 40 percent. Countries such as the United States and Denmark generate 725 and 751 kg, respectively, of municipal waste per person every year. The United Kingdom and Estonia overexploit 24 and 22 percent, respectively, of their fish stocks.

When the ink has dried on the outcome document of the New York summit, the work to implement the SDGs should start immediately. In the next fifteen years, let us learn from best practices on the seventeen goals. As the goals are merely political and not legally binding, civil society will have to hold governments to their pledges at the UN summit and accelerate the change over the next fifteen years. That is you, me, and everyone who is not going to be in that historic picture dated 25 September 2015. It is in our hands.

Useful links

Sustainable Development Goals: Are the rich countries ready? Christian Kroll, Bertelsmann Stiftung, SGI Network, 2015

OECD and the Sustainable Development Goals

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