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Are the UN’s sustainable development goals still relevant?

  • by JW

“The sustainable development goals prioritise everything. In the real world, that is to prioritise nothing.” [David Pilling, FT]


The UN has its 17 Sustainable Development GOALS:

Just before a special UN conference last September, the FT asked: Can the SDG goals still be saved?

The UN itself has acknowledged that the world is nowhere close to achieving these goals. In July, the UN published a status report that said the SDGs “are in peril”. Only about 12 per cent of targets are on track and more than half are moderately or severely off track. 

It makes for painful reading. About 23.5 per cent of young people globally were not in school or working in 2022, up from the 2015 figure of 22.2 per cent. On climate change, today’s average ocean acidity is 8.1 pH, about 30 per cent more acidic than in pre-industrial times. Adding to the pessimism, a recently published report from consultancy Accenture showed that just 49 per cent of 2,800 business leaders surveyed believed the world would achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Still, Accenture’s survey offers a ray of hope for improving some of the societal SDGs. Almost three-quarters of executives said they were open to higher national minimum wages. While the survey shows executives understand higher wages will cost them more, they broadly appeared to believe that higher wages were “of value and worth pursuing if borne fairly,” Accenture reported.

Last week, Californian legislators fired a shot across the bow of the business community by passing a new law that requires large companies to report their supply chain and customer carbon emissions — or so-called Scope 3 emissions — by 2027. Now the state has thrown down a gauntlet to fossil fuel giants: its attorney-general is suing oil majors, such as BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, for damages to help pay for the costs of climate change; it argues these companies knowingly concealed the impact of climate change for years. This will run and run.

Nevertheless, there are signs closer to home that some sort of progress is being made.

Last week’s Farmers’ Weekly reported how farm supply chain in UK is meeting UN sustainable development goals. And the Edie business website recently looked at the importance of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for businesses, concluding that they are seen as important enough here in the UK.

And yet, whilst another piece from Edie looked at exactly how companies can align with the SUDs Goals by making use of its framework, David Pilling writing for the FT this week demonstrated, in his opinion, why the SDGs are a bad idea, in that the sustainable development goals prioritise everything, whereas in the real world, that is to prioritise nothing:

Some ambitions, however admirable, are contradictory. To meet SDG 9 — “resilient infrastructure” — the Democratic Republic of Congo will have to build more roads. It is a western European-sized country, but it has only a few thousand kilometres of paved roads versus an estimated 6.5mn in western Europe. More roads would bring the people of DRC many benefits, including easier access to doctors and schools. Regrettably, they would also cause more road deaths. Roads may have more unpredictable consequences. They could accelerate deforestation (acting against SDG 15, which is “life on land”) by opening up isolated areas to logging companies. You could argue that connected populations are less likely to practise slash-and-burn agriculture or to use wood for cooking. But the point is that change is unpredictable and societal improvements rarely move in lockstep. Development is not a paint-by-numbers exercise.

Whether the UN’s list provides the right framework is clearly open to discussion – but, of course, there are other ways to measure ‘sustainability’…