A brief introduction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — Part 2

The benefits of the SDGs

For starters, the universal vision of the goals is a clear strength. 193 states have been incorporated into the framework, as well as numerous international organisations and private actors. The framework itself also covers social, economic and environmental concerns, something that lacked from previous development efforts and is important in addressing global inequality.

The SDGs are also target and evidence based. This allows for better and more efficient decision-making, as well as improved accountability within the development process. Data collection to measure progress is a challenge, but increasingly there are new and improved sources being used, such as the Earth Observation for Sustainable Development (EO4SD) initiative, which uses satellite data to monitor urban development and agriculture. Data is pulled together to produce yearly reports that measure the planet against the SDG metrics and breakdown the performance of different regions. In that way, the SDGs allow for global accountability and a clear tracking of our contribution to development.

Crucially, the goals don’t rely on economic sacrifice from governments and the private sector; instead, they make economic sense. In a 2017 report by the Business & Sustainable Commission, it was estimated that achieving the SDGs in agriculture, cities, energy, materials, health and well-being could deliver $12 trillion worth of business savings and revenue by 2030. Another report by S&P Global revealed that 13 companies using its Truscost SDG evaluation tool generated almost $233 billion of SDG-aligned revenues in 2017, accounting for 87% of their total. These numbers don’t lie, sustainable business is profitable and the SDGs can help our economies get there.

What about their weaknesses?

Of course, there are always issues.

The SDG framework is huge and is deemed by some as overly ambitious and lacking clarity. This is seen to hinder their impact, which would benefit from fewer objectives or a clearer prioritisation between the goals.

Another issue is that they are not a legally binding policy. Governments and corporations should work towards the SDGs, but just take a cursory glance around that planet and you’ll find many who aren’t.

And there’s more. Take the UK’s 2022 Sustainable Development Report, for example; it can be used to highlight some key issues with the lack of prioritisation within the SDGs.

The UK got a score of 80.5, ranking 11th globally, up from 17th in 2021. However, during the same period income inequality (a part of Goal 10) got worse. A growing gap between the rich and poor has detrimental economic and developmental effects, and yet because other goals in the framework were improving, the UK climbed the rankings. There is certainly a case to be made for weighting some goals more than others, although this would then add an extra level of complexity to an already convoluted framework.

There are also limits to the SDG framework itself. Firstly, the indicator list must be quantifiable in some sense, hence, it is not as comprehensive as it could be. Secondly, it is subject to the available data, which can often be hard to find when measuring something with a far-reaching impact such as an international supply chain or the wellbeing of a nation.

Weber also takes issue with the Means of Implementation (MoI) of the SDGs, finding that they do not address the link between development and environmental degradation. Target 8.4, for example, mentions the coupling of economic growth with environmental degradation, yet no MoI for Goal 8 proposes a solution to this.

The bigger picture

In the end, the SDGs act as a blueprint, a uniting framework in which just about anyone can operate to work towards sustainable development. They’re not perfect, but they do at least provide path towards a better world that 193 countries have agreed to at least try to follow. They provide a clear, evidence-based accountability framework and a way of measuring our progress to the goals. Whilst the SDGs are not legally binding or enforceable, it does provide us with the means of holding nations and companies accountable for their impact on our planet. It’s our responsibility to utilise this framework to its maximum potential and push beyond it wherever it falls short.

If you haven’t already, take a look at Part 1 — SDGs — what are they and how do they work?