A Beginner’s guide to the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and the sustainable development goals

By Katy Greco, Deputy Editor

In September 2015, every member state of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a 15-year plan that outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. But what are the SDGs, where did they come from, and can they really be achieved by the end of the decade?

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The SDGs are a collection of 17 goals that aim to address a range of social, economic and environmental issues. Each goal consists of two types of targets, namely: Outcome targets and Means of Implementation targets. Outcome targets describe the specific objectives of each goal and are denoted using numbers – for example, target 2.1 refers to Goal 2 (“Zero Hunger”), Outcome target 1 (“Universal access to safe and nutritious food”). Means of Implementation targets address how the Goals are to be attained, and are denoted using letters – for example, 2.a refers to Goal 2, Means of Implementation target a (“Invest in rural infrastructure, agricultural research, technology and gene banks”). As of 2017, each target has a number of indicators used to measure whether a target is being achieved – for example, the second indicator for 2.1, denoted 2.1.2, is “Prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the population, based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale”. 

Where did the SDGs come from?

Before the SDGs, there were the MDGs. The MDGs, or Millennium Development Goals, were a set of 8 goals adopted at the Millennium Summit in 2000. As with the SDGs, the MDGs had a 15-year deadline such that all the goals were intended to be achieved by 2015. And much like the SDGs, the MDGs aimed to tackle global issues such as extreme poverty, gender equality, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and environmental sustainability. At the end of the 15-year period, the final MDG report showed significant strides towards accomplishing the 8 goals. The number of people living in extreme poverty halved, HIV infections were reduced by 40%, and 2.6 billion people gained access to improved drinking water – just to name a few of the milestones achieved by the MDGs. But the MDGs were not without their shortcomings. Critics note that despite the focus of Goal 1 (“To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”), 800 million people still live-in extreme poverty. The MDGs also came under fire for failing to adequately address issues of inequality, human rights and environmental sustainability, as well as having significant methodological flaws. Needless to say, while the MDGs were a commendable achievement, they left much work to be done.  

Thus, towards the end of the MDG era, it was clear that a new plan would need to be implemented come 2015. Enter the Sustainable Development Goals! The SDGs were first conceived of at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development and were designed to continue the legacy of the MDGs and learn from their weaknesses. The full story of the SDGs is a little more complicated, but, if you’re interested, Paula Caballero (a leading figure in the development of the SDGs) gives a fascinating account in A Short History of the SDGs, which you can read here.

The Goals?

So, we’ve talked about what the SDGs mean and where they come from, but what are the 17 Goals? It’s list time! 

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation 
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reducing Inequality
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities 
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life On Land
  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

(For a full list of the goals, targets, indicators, and progress, see the UN’s SDG webpage!)

How is it going?

While the goals certainly sound great, they are undoubtedly ambitious. Unfortunately, reports show that we are far from achieving the majority of the SDGs. Even pre-pandemic, we were not on track to reaching the Goals – despite some progress in education enrolment rates and access to safe drinking water, food insecurity was rising, inequalities continued, economic growth was slowing, and the environment was still under significant threat. COVID-19 has only amplified these growing issues. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 outlines the sobering impact that the pandemic has had on almost every aspect of global development: 71 million people living in extreme poverty, 750 million people facing food insecurity, increases in infant and maternal mortality, 1.57 billion students out of school, rises in domestic abuse – the list goes on.   

But hope is not lost. In such a time of global crisis, the SDGs may be exactly what the world needs. In December 2020, the UNDP published research modelling four scenarios: ‘No COVID’ (the track we were on pre-COVID-19), ‘Baseline COVID’ (the track we are on), ‘High Damage’ (the track we could be on if the pandemic worsens) and ‘SDG Push’ (the track we could be on if we implement targeted interventions and investments towards the SDGs). The study found that the ‘SDG Push’ could not only reverse the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the SDGs, but also significantly improve the pre-COVID trajectory. To learn more about this research, there are some fantastic interactive graphs of the study’s data, which you can see here. Therefore, although we are far from achieving them, we must try to reach as many of these goals as possible in order to protect generations to come from irreversible environmental, societal, and economic damage.

Header Image by Mat Reding, via Unsplash

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