The Challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 15. December 2014 - 1:04
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

The Challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum

Rio+20 called for the preparation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), building on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which focussed on reducing poverty, but including a wider set of sustainability issues relevant to all countries. An intergovernmental Open Working Group built on an inclusive process to issue a set of proposed SDGs in July 2014 (OWG 2014), and these are now under intergovernmental negotiation for approval by a UN summit of Heads of State on 25-27 September 2015. The Open Working Group proposed 17 Sustainable Development Goals with a number of targets under each goal, 169 targets in all (OWG 2014). The UN General Assembly and the UN Secretary-General have accepted that the proposals of the Group be the main basis for the post-2015 intergovernmental process (UN 2014). Indicators still need to be developed for these targets.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development: Finance, Technology, Capacity-building, Trade, Systemic issues: Policy and institutional coherence, multi-stakeholder partnerships; data, monitoring and accountability

As indicated by the Open Working Group, the SDGs “are action oriented, global in nature and universally applicable”. Unlike the MDGs which focused on the needs of the poor in developing countries, they will apply to every country. Where in the past the wealthier countries were more involved in mobilizing funds and development projects to achieve the MDGs in poorer countries, they will now be expected to assess their own trajectories towards national sustainability and to contribute their share towards planetary sustainability.

This is the first time that the international community has agreed to measure the sustainability of the whole planetary system, and to recognize that the planet imposes boundaries and limits that we must learn to live within. Scientists report that we have already overshot some of those boundaries, particularly for greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and nitrogen fixation, and must reverse course to step back inside them (Rockström et al. 2009). A system of governance based on national sovereignty and giving priority to domestic issues is poorly adapted to these global challenges. While only one of the MDGs was explicitly environmental, half of the proposed SDGs have a major focus on the environment and natural resources.

In this perspective, it will no longer be possible for governments to consider policies and activities just within national borders. Global systems of trade, travel and communications unite all countries, so the footprint of most countries extends far beyond their borders, and the high share of global consumption in the consumer economies contributes to imbalances and environmental impacts all around the world. The SDG process will measure that impact.

While it may be relatively easy for the nations of the world to agree on aspirational global goals, assigning relative shares of the effort required to meet them will be much more difficult. Each nation has a tendency to jockey for competitive advantage, to hold out to see what others will propose, and to settle for the lowest common denominator. If the SDGs are to be more than just aspirational, then some countries have to set the pace with suitably ambitious efforts.

One issue with the proposed SDGs is the extent to which they will themselves be integrated across the different dimensions of sustainable development. Indicators narrowly focussed on only one measure of performance might simply reinforce sectoral approaches. It has been suggested that the goals and targets proposed by the Open Working Group are reasonably well integrated across the economic and social sectors, but that this is less true of the environmental sector, which results in some contradictions between meeting environmental sustainability goals and other measures of progress. Some of these issues are discussed below.


For example, economic growth for all is still an explicit goal (Goal 8 is to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth”) and target 8.1 is to “sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances, and in particular at least 7% per annum GDP growth in the least-developed countries”. Yet some experts say a return to significant rates of growth is unrealistic when growing demand and global resource scarcities produce rising prices. Furthermore, the needs to respect planetary boundaries and to meet sustainability requirements require limitations on some kinds of resource exploitation and pollutant emissions which are linked to material consumption. The use of GDP as a measure of growth is also increasingly questioned as inappropriate, and target 17.19 is “to develop measurements of progress on sustainable development that complement GDP”.

A much more nuanced approach to achieving global prosperity is needed, with growth in consumption for the poor to meet their basic needs balanced by reduced material consumption among the rich. Once a reasonable level of material human well-being is reached, further growth in consumption can be counter-productive to both social welfare and environmental sustainability. Continuing growth in the more intangible dimensions of society may be highly desirable, but there are optimum levels of many material factors in production that should not be exceeded. Sustainability requires convergence towards an optimum, rather than continuing growth without limit.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

Another challenge with global goals is to determine common but differentiated responsibilities and responses. As mentioned above, the goal to end poverty requires that the poor raise their consumption to a reasonable level of well-being. However, on a planet where the consumption of resources and impacts on biogeochemical cycles are overshooting global capacities, the wealthier countries and populations have a responsibility to reduce their consumption levels in order to free up resources and space for the poor to meet their basic needs. The public debate on this has not yet really begun. A major effort is needed in public education on sustainable consumption and production, aiming towards a consensus on the efforts required and the assistance to be given to poorer countries. The wealthy countries need to consider their fair share of the global goals, including their larger role in the globalized economy with its resource flows and trade. Many countries also need to make efforts to reduce economic and social extremes within their own borders in the interest of equity and social stability. The SDGs will extend this process explicitly to the global level.

There is still much to be done, in the face of rising nationalism and xenophobia, to underline the fundamental interdependence of countries, the trade flows, geographic features and environmental resources that link them together, and the benefits of reducing differences in the interests of stability and security.

Ambitious targets

One inevitable challenge with the SDG process is its ambitious global targets: end poverty, end hunger, etc. It is left to each country to set “its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances” (OWG 2014 para.18). As has been only too apparent with greenhouse gas reduction targets, the sum of all national targets generally falls far short of what is needed to reach a global goal, no matter how worthy or urgent. Will any countries be courageous enough to determine their fair share of the global targets, and be ambitious in setting their national targets as an example to the rest of the world?

The challenges of integration across the dimensions of sustainable development

The Open Working Group has emphasized that “these goals constitute an integrated, indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development.... The goals and targets integrate economic, social and environmental aspects and recognize their interlinkages in achieving sustainable development in all its dimensions.“ The SDGs are a package, and need to be addressed by each country in an integrated way, with each determining its share of responsibility in achieving the aspirational global targets.

Integration needs to be pursued in multiple ways simultaneously. The first is the integration across disciplines and the dimensions of sustainable development. The Open Working Group has gone to great efforts to build such integration into its proposed SDGs. Since governments are divided into ministries by sector, and the academic world trains people by discipline, there is a natural tendency to resist interdisciplinary work, since this can make life more difficult by introducing the complexity of issues today. The environment is often the dimension that gets marginalized since it may constrain an economic system still wedded to growth and short-term targets.

Beyond what might be considered as the intellectual integration of subjects or disciplines lies the challenge of rethinking the institutions of society and the processes by which it functions, including governments, the private sector, academia and civil society. These too often reflect a “silo” approach to the functions of society disregarding larger impacts and implications. Bureaucracies are notorious for not wanting to collaborate. Institutional reform is one of the most difficult issues in the move towards sustainability, with enormous inertia and resistance to change. We need to look for examples of institutional innovation and changes in processes that facilitate integration, and encourage their replication.

Ultimately, the concept of sustainability and the necessary integration to achieve it need to be understood and accepted by each individual, requiring a change in mind-set, if not in the whole paradigm of development. The transition to sustainability will ultimately be a transition in thinking, which will then be expressed naturally in institutions and activities. There is little effort at present to train people in complex systems thinking, with a vision of the whole, and to cultivate the ability to communicate across the disciplines. A good example is Fritjof Capra's recent book “The Systems View of Life” (Capra and Luisi 2014). Activities in building the human capacity for complex systems management and sustainability, even at a small scale, can have a large catalytic impact.

The UN Post-2015 Agenda, with its Sustainable Development Goals, targets and indicators and a global Sustainable Development Report, is creating a more coherent and integrated framework for national and regional policy and planning in the urgent need to transition towards sustainability.


Capra, Fritjof, and Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

OWG. 2014. Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, 19 July 2014. and…

Rockström, J. et al. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL:

UN. 2014. The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet. Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda. Advance unedited version, 4 December 2014. New York: United Nations.…

Last updated 15 December 2014