The world, potted and protected, at the UN in Geneva
The UN Sustainable Development Goals are the closest to a comprehensive global plan that we have.
It was agreed by UN member states in 2015, following on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000-2015 and setting seventeen goals and 169 targets for all countries to achieve by 2030.
End poverty. Extreme poverty was halved between 1990 and 2015, but wider signs of poverty also include poor healthcare and education, hunger, discrimination and political exclusion.
Zero hunger and malnutrition. Doubling agricultural productivity and the incomes of small-scale food producers, ensuring sustainable food production systems, improving land and soil quality, maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, preventing trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, limiting food price volatility and eliminating waste.
Good health and wellbeing. Universal health coverage including access to medicines and vaccines, ending preventable deaths of new-borns and under-fives, ending epidemics such as AIDS, TB, malaria and waterborne diseases, and preventing and treating substance abuse, death and injury from traffic incidents, hazardous chemicals, pollution and contamination.
Quality education. All girls and boys to complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education (a key ingredient in economic growth and change in social attitudes).
Gender equality. Providing women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare, decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes.
Clean water and sanitation. Safe drinking water, water sources and hygienic toilets.
Affordable, reliable and clean energy, including goals to increase renewable energy.
Decent work, full employment and economic growth. Longterm economic development, reduction of youth unemployment, living wages, acceptable working conditions.
Industry, innovation and infrastructure. Building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.
Reduced inequalities within and among countries. Redistributive taxation, equality of opportunity, fair remittance costs and low import duties favouring least-developed countries.
Sustainable cities and communities. Inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities with well serviced and affordable housing, adequate public services and urban impacts.
Responsible consumption and production. Eco-friendly production, waste and pollution reduction and sustainable practices.
Climate change. Combating climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy.
Oceans, seas and marine resources. Dealing with pollution, acidification, plastics, species conservation, shipping and coastal and fishery conservation.
Life on Land. Protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification and halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss.
Peace, justice and strong institutions. Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Reducing violent crime, sex trafficking, forced labour and child abuse.
Partnerships for achieving the goals. Developing international cooperation and multi-stakeholder partnerships to share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial support. Responsive government and public-private partnerships involving civil society.
However, there are problems with these goals. Some of them conflict with each other: there are inherent conflicts particularly between economic, social and environmental aims. Also, the cost of achieving these goals is high and, under current conditions, arguably it is politically unrealistic, requiring about $2-3 trillion per year until 2030, at a time when pledged funding and paid-up funds can differ considerably – a regrettably common habit today. Estimates for providing clean water and sanitation alone could be as high as $200bn.
SDG implementation started in 2016. Governments are required to translate the SDGs into national legislation, develop a plan of action, establish budgets and search for implementation partners. There is a reporting and monitoring problem since many nations massage their figures to appear compliant, or they apply measures that are not entirely beneficial overall (they just look good, or they can serve veiled vested-interest purposes), or they simply say one thing and do another. Meanwhile, the UN has few sanctions it can apply for non-compliance.
One unstated development goal seriously affects and contradicts the above-named SDGs: making a profit. The international system is a capitalist system, and corporate profit priorities clash with many of the problems that the SDGs set out to address. So the current world business climate can impede progress in achieving the SDG aims, and it has spent the last 50 years doing so. There is therefore a serious glitch with the SDGs inasmuch as they attempt to bring about their noble aims without addressing more fundamental systemic changes to deal with the excesses and impacts of the global economic system.
The SDGs are therefore weakened and, while notable progress will indeed be made with these goals by 2030 and many benefits will arise from them, a tension between the aims of the SDGs and those of the economic system and its main beneficiaries – richer countries, people and corporations – will undermine them. This is a critical issue.
We are thus faced with an unresolved question of global priorities. This single matter lies at the heart of all calculations concerning the world’s future. Until it is resolved, the world is attempting to move in two divergent directions – toward both profitable aims and sustainable and just aims. This jeopardises our longterm future. It represents an unclarity over the world’s primary goals and objectives. This is seriously problematic. This issue, currently avoided, is likely to become critically unavoidable at some point in the future.