Eighteen months ago, leaders of nearly 200 nations meeting at the United Nations agreed a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide their governments – and people everywhere – for the next 15 years.
If these 17 goals can be achieved by 2030, the world will have taken a huge step towards genuinely sustainable development – in other words, addressing social justice and the need for an inclusive economy as well as climate change, resource shortages and biodiversity. Billions more people will have the chance of a decent life, living in more secure and prosperous communities, with hugely improved public services and better prospects for their own families, without having trashed that natural wealth on which we depend or unleashed the horrors of runaway climate change.
Over the last year, we’ve heard a great deal lately about people and communities being ‘left behind’ by globalisation, and how this is fuelling a populist political insurgency in many developed world nations, not least the UK and the USA. I’ve written about it a lot! But here’s a sobering reminder: it was 30 years ago that the Brundtland Commission gave birth to the concept of sustainable development, enshrining the idea that progress – however dizzying and global – isn’t progress if large numbers get left behind.
If sustainable development had been taken more seriously and been given more clout, we would be in an infinitely better place today.
Even so, the SDGs now represent the broadest, most ambitious attempt by governments everywhere to set out what sustainable development looks like, and how to measure progress towards it. So they should matter immensely to a large, wealthy country like the UK – which, commendably, takes its obligation to fighting global poverty seriously and meets the UN target of 0.7% of GDP going towards overseas development aid.
Within the UK, there is growing interest in – and support for – the SDGs. And today, UKSSD (the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development) is holding its second annual conference.
The UKSSD (which includes Forum for the Future as one of its members) is a diverse network of organisations set up in the wake of the SDGs being agreed. It includes leading businesses, universities and NGOs campaigning for global environmental protection and fighting poverty. In January, the group wrote an open letter to Prime Minster Theresa May arguing that sustainable development is good for businesses and social enterprises alike, and for wealth creation in general. It was signed by more than 80 companies, many of them big household names.
Yet there is little sign that her Government thinks these universal global goals, and the targets which go with them, have any relevance for what happens with the UK and within government. It seems to see them as only mattering to the international development agenda.
This is a wasted opportunity. It’s true that the UK has already achieved many of these targets – such as those concerning clean drinking water and sanitation – within its own borders. But many others are still to be achieved, and represent relevant, worthwhile goals for domestic policy and politics.
Just as importantly, achieving the SDGs demands joined-up thinking and moving beyond quick fixes. Take the current NHS crisis as an example. No doubt it will ease a little as we come out of a hard winter. Maybe the government will be able to find a few extra billions in the next few years, and perhaps the economy will grow fast enough to increase overall spending on a regular basis – though at what cost to the natural world and to people’s real quality of life is another question.
But the problems of our beloved health service have deep social and environmental roots. The underlying issues around an ageing population, social care, diet and exercise, and a host of horrendous health inequalities between rich and poor, are not going to go away. Our transport and education systems, access to green spaces in and around our cities, and the deplorable state of air quality in many of those cities, all affect the national health.
A government that thinks about, and cares about, what sustainable development really means within its own borders – and then organises around that one big idea – has a much better chance of securing real and lasting progress. And doing so as a government that doesn’t just spout on and on about ‘everyone being in it together’, but achieves that in practice, in every part of the country.