Inked in September, the new sustainable development goals (SDGs) might just signal the start of something revolutionary.
Committed to by world leaders at the UN Summit in New York, the 17 proposed goals and 169 targets aim to be a charter for people and the planet in the twenty-first century. Debated by civil society and UN member states for more than two years, the goals will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance to building a more equitable and sustainable world for all. The SDGs will ultimately replace the millennium development goals (MDGs), which expire at the end of this year.
The aim of the new SDGs is ambitious: End extreme poverty; fight inequality and injustice; fix climate change in all countries, for all people. The goals come not a moment too soon: Climate change is rapidly becoming the greatest threat to poverty eradication and negatively affecting sustainable development efforts. If action is not taken to cut emissions and support communities to adapt to the changes, its impacts will only increase.
The SDGs will further enhance the importance of so-called co-benefits accrued from tackling climate change and streamline impact measurement across all development domains. Co-benefits are the added benefits when acting to control climate change, beyond the direct benefits of a more stable climate. They include items such as enhanced livelihood opportunities, women empowerment, health and education.
For example, the health benefits of cleaner air may actually exceed the costs of climate action and prove even greater savings than simply the advantages of avoided air pollution. While quantifying the advantages of addressing climate change can be tricky, the benefits of cleaning up the air in a local town are much more immediate. For most developing countries, and to a large extent donor communities as well as the private sector, the potential of programs, projects and/or policies to deliver tangible co-benefits forms the basis of investment decision making.
Ultimately, the SDGs will affect organizations and institutions of all shapes and sizes, from the European Union to municipalities and corporations, and engagement from a wide scale of actors will be crucial in shaping the future agenda. The playing field and the adoption of the SDGs marks a new era for both the public and private sector to deepen and broaden their sustainability efforts. In comparison to their predecessors, the SDGs are much broader and more difficult to measure. However, they represent a bold move towards a more ambitious, yet more realistic and inclusive development agenda – a golden opportunity for governments, private enterprise and civil society to work together in tackling the biggest challenges on the planet.
The SDGs convey, for instance, one of the strongest expressions of the critical role of cities in the world’s future by aiming to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” For example, cities are responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions at the global level. This goal also enshrines links to adaptation to climate change and community resilience. Ensuring that all the targets for adaptation and capacity building at a city level translate into a success, strategic plans and frameworks involving policymakers at all levels will be a must-have for sustainable urban development.
Where the agenda of the predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, was centered around actions by governments, the SDGs seek to involve a diverse range of actors – including, crucially, a more prominent role for the private sector.
Goal 16 advocates the promotion of “peaceful and inclusive societies.” This will essentially have an effect on the decisions taken with regards to instruments for investment, i.e., what tools must be made available for businesses to better allow for support of domestic resources. The SDGs will open the floor to provide more instruments supporting longer-term investments coming from the corporate side, such as much needed credit guarantees. Put simply, the sustainable development goals will guide the way in which governments spend their money – if a business can tackle any of these goals, there will be money to be made.
Contributing to the SDG agenda can enhance one’s own goals and aspirations as an organization. For the private sector, the SDGs can provide a more focused direction on how to boost the quality of sustainability goals, position them as commitments, and better communicate them in a credible and meaningful manner. Not to mention improving standards and mitigating risks along the supply chain. By striving to better integrate sustainability in its operation, Ikea has sparked transformational change in the market for commodities, namely cotton, and a more efficient use of resources within its own supply chain. Partnering with the Better Cotton Initiative, Ikea not only improved the livelihoods of 43,000 farmers in South Asia, but also significantly reduced the amounts of costly artificial fertilizers it used. This is inspiring news for anyone operating in the textile industry where pesticides and chemicals can account for up to 60 percent of farming costs, and where forecasts see production costs increasing as conventional cotton farming becomes more water and chemical intensive.
In the public realm, the SDGs can create a fine opportunity for goal-oriented policies that will improve the quality of democratic practices around the world. The SDGs are also likely to spur growth in the Results-based Financing model, in which a “payer” (a government, international donor, or a foundation for example) conditions its payment to a service provider (a private company or a NGO for example) on desired outcomes. Results-based financing bears great potential to improve the efficiency and quality of public services (and development aid in general) through a greater private sector involvement and other benefits such as reduced corruption. Carbon markets are currently the biggest and most prominent form of Results-Based Financing within the realm of sustainable development. The lessons learned in carbon markets over the last 15 years, will play an important role in helping to expand this experience to other SDGs.
The actions taken in New York are just part of the bigger picture. By acknowledging and reacting to the implications of the SDGs, organizations and institutions can ensure thriving environments in which to operate in. Ultimately, they can play a leading role in delivering a healthier, cleaner and an increasingly more prosperous future for all.