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What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Acronyms are everywhere, some well-known and others less so, we all know NHS, ASAP and OMG but what about BNC, DDR or DWS. Every sector has their own acronyms and sustainability does too, so today we are exploring one of the most common you’ll see: the UNSDGs.

Admittedly, their full title, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, is quite a mouthful but it’s worth it: the UNSDGs are the bread and butter of international sustainability progress and targets. Even acronyms get abbreviated sometimes and you’ll often see the UNSDG’s simply referred to as the SDGs.

The SDGs are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which was signed in 2015 by the 193 countries of the United Nations (UN). The Agenda was created with Governments, business, civil society and citizens as a 15-year plan to end extreme poverty, fight inequality, and protect our planet. The SDGs form the heart of that agenda – a set of 17 universal goals that act as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”. They act as a global masterplan across each of the three sustainability pillars: environmental, economic and social.

A rectangular graphic with a pale grey background and a blue sans-serif font title saying 'Sustainable development goals', under the title are 18 colourful squares each depicting one of the 17 SDGs with white text and a white simplified graphic in the lower half of the square, the last square is white and repeats the title. Each square has a number in the top left. The first square is red with the words ‘No Poverty’, and a graphic of a family with four adults and two children. The second square is gold with the words ‘zero hunger, and a graphic of a steaming bowl. The third square is bright green with the words ‘good health and well-being’ and a heartbeat for the graphic. The fourth square is dark red and has the words quality education and a book and pen for the graphic. The fifth SDG and square is dark orange with gender equality and the combined symbols for men and women with an equal sign in the middle as the graphic. The sixth sdg and square is bright blue and has clean water and sanitation with a glass of water with an arrow coming out of the bottom of the glass. The seventh SDG and square is pale orange with affordable and clen energy as the words with a sun with the power symbol in the middle of the sun as the graphic. The 8th square is burgundy with decent work and economic growth and a graph. The ninth square is orange with industry, innovation and infrastructure as the words. The tenth square is dark pink with reduced inequalities and a graphic depicting four arrow heads heading away from an equal sign. The eleventh square is orange with the words sustainable cities and communities and buildings as the graphic. The twelfth square is bronze with responsible consumption and production and a recycle sign as the graphic. Square 13 is dark racing green with the words climate action and an eye with the world forming the pupil of the eye. The fourteenth square is soft medium blue with the words life below water and a fish under some waves. The 15th square is pale green with the words life on land and a tree with birds as the graphic. The 16th square is indigo blue with peace, justice and strong institutions as the words with a dove on a gavel as the graphic. The final square representing SDG 17 is navy blue with the words partnerships for the goals and a series of 5 interconnected circles.

Where did the SDGs come from?

The UNSDGs didn’t pop out of the ether: they build on decades of work by the UN and other organisations. They’re seen as a direct descendant of another set of goals – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); eight targets agreed to in 2000 to reduce extreme poverty by 2015.

Though the MDGs did have some success, the SDGs are seen to be a more ambitious and holistic set of aspirations. Why?

  1. They are universal. The MDGs only really focused on action in developing countries, whereas the SDGs apply to every country with all nations having a role to play and actions to take.

  2. They are to zero. The MDGs were improvement goals whereas the SDGs all target an absolute achievement. For example, one of the MDGs was “Reduce child mortality” whereas a standard UNSDG is “Zero Hunger” and “No Poverty”. Though this doesn’t make them more likely to be achieved, it sets the world’s focus on what the realistic aim should be so we can all work towards it.

  3. They cover all pillars of sustainability. The SDGs broaden out the range of topics we should be talking about. For example, environmental targets expand from one to six (though all goals are interconnected to climate and our environment – we can’t have food, water, health and security without it!). They also include more nuanced and capacity-building goals including ‘Peace, Justice & Institutions’, ‘Industry, Infrastructure & Innovation’ and even a goal dedicated to ‘Partnerships for the Goals’.

Will we achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

Firstly, let’s clarify what is to be achieved. Though each of the 17 goals have nice snappy titles, underneath them are 169 targets which spell out specific achievements to be met such as ‘By 2030, ensure that all youth, and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy’ under UNSDG4 Quality Education.

169 is a lot of targets, though they are all incredibly important. Despite this, it doesn’t mean they will be achieved and unfortunately we are not on target to achieve the UNSDGs. In fact, we are only on track to achieve 26 of the targets according to the UNECE 2022 SDG progress report. This report also highlights that 15 targets show a reverse trend as the pandemic, climate change and armed conflicts threaten their achievement and humanity’s very own survival.

A woman with dark, tight curly hair and tortoiseshell glasses sat at a desk with a wide window in the background. The woman is sat on the left hand side of the frame and is holding a model of a wind turbine in her right hand and is touching a globe with her left hand.

What do we need to do?

As an individual

  1. Learn about the Goals. It can be easy to agree in principle to the SDGs but to take concrete action, we need to know what they entail. Read into each goal in more detail and the 169 targets to clarify what the goals mean and what we need to do to get there.

  2. Recognise that the UNSDGs are interconnected. It can be tempting to choose one or two goals as focus points and forget about the other issues. All of the SDGs impact each other. For example, if we don’t have a safe environment to live in, we cannot have the safe water, ample food, security, or opportunities that the SDGs aspire to. If we have scarcity of resources; education, equality and human rights are all threatened. It’s best to see the UNSDGs as a big jigsaw with each goal making up a piece of the puzzle.

  3. Identify your skills and interests. So now you know about the goals, it’s time to achieve them all. Stop, no, that isn’t how this works. The UNSDGs are a global, collaborative aspiration which means nobody can single-handedly solve them, though we all have our own role to play. Although the goals are interconnected, there may be certain themes or topics that are most of interest to you. Focus your efforts there. Furthermore, understand your skills. Are you a communicator who can creatively inspire people into action? Are you an organiser who can plan a successful project? Are you a researcher who can collect data and share findings on the current situation and what could be? By focusing on your interests and skills, you’ll be much more likely to succeed and stay motivated.

  4. Look to your local area: What are the pressing issues? Is there a specific goal or two that are most challenging that you could start supporting? Are you doing one particularly well and can share that learning with others? Get involved – not only can you support the UNSDGs but you can also boost your sense of community and mental health.

As an organisation

  1. Learn about the Goals. As we outlined for individuals, it is critical to understand what the goals are in order to take effective action on them so dive into their details, targets and indicators so you have a solid foundation to build from.

  2. Commit to contributing. Consider joining an accountability framework such as the UN Global Compact which aims to “Accelerate and scale the global collective impact of business by upholding the Ten Principles and delivering the SDGs through accountable companies and ecosystems that enable change.” Their 10 Principles can be found on their website and can be a good framework to use when first determining where to start and move towards.

  3. Map your full impacts. Many organisations focus on a few key goals but ignore the rest. As an organisation, we likely have an impact – or potential for impact – on all 17 SDGs. Identify what these impacts are – both positive and negative – as well as opportunities to improve and create a larger positive impact. Once you have mapped these throughout your processes, supply chain, policies and practices, you can be more prepared for the next step.

  4. Develop strategies for change. Embed the UNSDGs in your processes. For example, conduct environmental impact and human rights assessments, ensure that your supply chain and partners are equally committed, and make sure any current or future policy or practice aligns to the outcomes of the UNSDGs.

Overall, the UNSDGs represent our great jigsaw for a better future. They’re not perfect, but they are a vision. The more of us who see this vision, understand it and move towards it; the more likely we are to realise it. Trust in your ability to make change and see these as what a better world could look like – because it is in our reach!

Ready to take action? Join our Carbon Literacy Training.


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