The Paris summit 2015 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Diego Horcajada, November 2017

The 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in the year 2000 following the United Nations Millennium Summit for the horizon 2015, had a strong focus to improve quality of life, specifically in undeveloped and developing regions. As such, the first 6 goals aimed to: reduce hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat major illnesses such as HIV and malaria. Only the MDG n°7 directly addressed environmental sustainability, and the MDG n°8 addressed the partnerships required to achieve all the MDGs.

Good but insufficient progress has been reported on the MDGs; there is still a long way to go. We cannot ignore that since the year 2000 we have more wars and greater social inequality (within and among states), leading to deterioration of the so-called “middle class” and unsustainable migratory flows. In my opinion, this combination is a ticking bomb on the floating line of the peaceful relations both within and among countries. And it deviates the focus of the developed countries away from their needed role to lead positive global change.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon by the UN General Assembly in 2015 are an extension of the 8 MDGs. In my opinion, they represent a necessary extension of the scope of action, bringing the environmental concern, initially represented by the MDG n°7, to a much higher level of detail (Table 1). They are as well more ambitious, including new key topics such as access to water, inequality, justice and peace (SDG-6, SDG-10, SDG-16).

MDGs to SDGsTable 1

But with all the due respect, I have to express my skepticism regarding the effectiveness of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, and the several international meetings held since: Kyoto in 1997, Bali in 2007, Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, Durban in 2011, Warsaw in 2013, Lima in 2014 and finally Paris in 2015 where the 17 SDGs were agreed upon.

I think the SDGs face the risks of ambiguity, lack of ownership and applicability when we bring them down to nations and businesses. Having said that, I believe that tools like the gapframe developed by the Swiss Sustainability Hub (SSH) initiative can help to mitigate those risks. The gapframe tool can help nations and businesses to define specific and relevant initiatives in their scope of action. I very much appreciate how the tool is able to simplify the entry point and at the same time detail the potential scope of action. It simplifies the entry point by linking each of the 17 SDGs to one of the four sustainability dimensions (planet, society, economy, governance). It details the scope of action through the inclusion of additional developmental issues to reach a final list of 24 tangible issues relevant to any nation or business. I particularly appreciate the inclusion of issues such as business integrity, public finance, and transparency in the dimension of governance, as to me they address the two major barriers that will prevent us to achieve the SGDs: corporate greed and political corruption.

The consequences of the last major economic crises in 2008 had a huge negative impact on the quality of life of the middle class across all developed countries; for the first time in modern times, we believe the next generation will have a lower quality of life than the preceding one. The publication of the “Panama Papers” in 2015 proved to me at what level economic inequality within states is actually associated to the bondage between the political and corporate powers.

Never the less, and perhaps being too naïve, I believe we are gaining momentum to achieve the inflexion point towards truly sustainable development. Though it comes certainly late and it looks like the next two or three generations will pay a high price.

Still, I am optimistic because I think we have understood wars and colonialism do not bring us far; we are witnessing the negative results of extreme formal economical models (capitalism and communism); we start to understand the potential of the age of information where larger and faster access to information can help us rapidly share knowledge, spread new ideas and create the change; we perceive the solid establishment of the sharing economy and open science; and finally we see that technology and science are (and have been for a while now) at the level to allow us to end our dependence on unsustainable sources of energy (fossil fuels) and produce food for all without harming the environment.

Many thanks for your interest.

Diego Horcajada

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