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The Sustainable Development Goals After 5 Years

Despite the goals’ wide coverage, some people are still left behind.

Ilan Kelman
United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
Source: Ilan Kelman

Five years ago today, United Nations General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/1 was adopted: “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were born and we are now one-third of the way through this agenda.

The 17 goals, aiming to be achieved through 169 targets and 232 indicators, cover a huge proportion of humanity through tackling life’s challenges which people face day-to-day. How complete are they? Who continues to be left behind?

Interestingly, the military appears to have been largely left out. Target 16.4 covers “illicit…arms flows,” but wider defense spending is not considered. Declared military budgets from countries reach nearly $2 trillion per year, with the likelihood of much more in undeclared expenditure.

Achieving sustainability requires investment in order to reap the huge paybacks. It cannot be completed without reducing some of the world’s highest costs, for which weapons, military, and defense sit near the top of the list.

Fossil fuel companies are another group bypassed by the SDGs to some degree. Declared direct government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry are generally calculated at around $500 billion per year. Indirect subsidies might be an order of magnitude higher—more than double military spending—depending on how calculations are completed.

To be fair, Target 12.c says “rationalize inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies,” which is a start. Unfortunately, it is then followed by so many provisos and subclauses as to be almost pointless. It is also far from the appropriately direct and unambiguous language in Target 14.6 on eliminating subsidies for illegal fishing. Meanwhile, Target 7.a promotes “advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology,” undermining moves to wean humanity off this finite and polluting resource.

Considering other groups within and outside of the SDGs, many goals, targets, and indicators laudably highlight the importance of achievements for girls and boys. Others are impressively inclusive of women and men. This approach to gender equity is a baseline for sustainability, as shown by Targets 4.5, 16.1, and 16.2 (among many others) involving everyone.

It is then puzzling why Targets 5.1 and 5.2, on eliminating discrimination and violence respectively, are about “women and girls” only which leaves out men and boys. In fact, Goal 5 “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” would be impossible to accomplish without empowering men and boys to contribute actively to gender equity and equality.

Similarly, Targets 3.7 and 5.6 on sexual and reproductive health are needed, focused, and relevant. The SDGs lack any explicit statement about combatting homophobia or about accepting all sexualities and genders. Eliminating discrimination means eliminating discrimination against everyone.

The many scientists and campaigners supporting sustainable economies and sustainable livelihoods are sidelined by some of the SDGs. Most notably, Target 8.1 requires “at least 7 percent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries”.

Decades of research and advocacy are clear that gross domestic product is an unacceptable metric for sustainability since it measures consumption. Having “sustainable economic growth” as Goal 8 is antithetical to the SDGs with numerous, well-studied alternatives available including circular economies, steady state economies, and degrowth.

Meanwhile, the SDGs’ exclusionary approach is demonstrated by Goal 13 separating out climate change as its own topic and assigning it to the United Nations policy body dealing with climate change negotiations. This approach perpetuates silos and stops people who wish to integrate topics from working together.

In contrast, dealing with disasters is integrated throughout the SDGs, cleverly preventing separation of disasters from other sustainability topics. It is nonetheless odd that disaster science is diminished by the SDGs when the field’s foundations are sidestepped. Target 2.4 confuses hazards and disasters while Target 13.1 refers to “natural disasters,” which disaster researchers have long explained is a misnomer, because disasters are caused by human-created vulnerabilities, not nature.

Why so many people and their work are excluded from the SDGs is easy to explain: politics. The SDGs deserve praise for bringing together so many countries and peoples, aiming to improve our world for everyone. The glaring limitations illustrate the frustrating political reality of untenable compromises needed for avoiding all the SDGs being scuttled.

Yet with groups of people and established knowledge excluded, are the SDGs scuttled anyway? Clause 74 explains that SDG progress is, in effect, mainly self-reported and voluntary, so it is an open question regarding how much the SDGs could achieve, apart from raising awareness.

These questions are a duty of science to ask. Research must emphasize and align with the SDGs’ many positive points while noting the missing aspects—and explaining why each cluster exists. Critique is essential to continue improving.

Sustainability is an ongoing process. It should not and cannot stop in 2030, irrespective of what the SDGs have and have not attained—and irrespective of what they realistically could and could not attain. With exactly 10 years to go in the UN resolution, now is the time to start answering the question: What happens with sustainability goals, targets, and indicators after 2030?


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Kelman, I. 2017. "Linking disaster risk reduction, climate change, and the sustainable development goals". Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 254-258.

Waage, J. and C. Yap (Eds.) 2015. Thinking Beyond Sectors for Sustainable Development. Ubiquity Press, London.

Waage, J., C. Yap, S. Bell, C. Levy, G. Mace, T. Pegram, E. Unterhalter, N. Dasandi, D. Hudson, R. Kock, S. Mayhew, C. Marx, and N. Poole 2015. "Governing the UN Sustainable Development Goals: interactions, infrastructures, and institutions". The Lancet Global Health, vol. 3, no. 5, pp. E251-E252.