September 29, 2015 | By Michael Tiboris

Global Goals: Can We Do More and Better with Less?

Courtesy of sustainabledevelopment.un.org

Between Pope Francis's address to the United States Congress and the United Nation's adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals, it has been an auspicious couple weeks for powerful calls to action in the face of persistent global challenges.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, are a reaffirmation and extension of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. At that time, the focus was primarily on eradicating extreme poverty for the estimated 1.9 billion people struggling to meet their basic needs on a day to day basis. The number of people affected by extreme poverty makes it gravely urgent on its own terms, but poverty also impacts our collective ability to address a number of other related environmental and public health crises. The new SDGs include 17 targets. A cluster of these are still poverty-related, but a significant number of them are focused on climate change, ecosystem protection, cleaner energy development, and sustainable urbanization.

Sustainable development is broadly understood as economic development which is both socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The SDGs appear to fit snugly within this general definition, including targets for "Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure" and "Decent Work and Economic Growth" which suggest the belief that the best way forward for addressing global challenges is still fostering opportunities for collective global growth. Inclusive growth is especially important from this perspective because the traditional mechanisms of economic development have not spread the benefits of global development equitably. The wealthiest parts of the world have thrived on unsustainable consumption, but the benefits of this have largely remained with those countries while the burdens have been shared with, or even exported to, the developing world. The SDGs, and the MDGs before them, acknowledge that the developed world must do more to see that technological and economic gains that are the dividend on development make their way to the worst off.

According to the United Nations (UN), there has been significant progress in reducing extreme poverty and hunger since the original goals went into effect. The number of people living in extreme poverty has, by the their measurements, been reduced by half. As economist Jeffrey Sachs notes, major reductions in poverty produce cascading quality of life effects including greater access to health care, and thus reduced child mortality and increased prospects for getting an education.[1] Over 90 percent of the world now has access to improved drinking water sources, up from 76 percent in 1990.[2] But poor access to improved sanitation, a major disease vector, is still very common, leaving about a billion people entirely without access to toilets or wastewater treatment. Women benefit the most significantly from investments in alleviating poverty as it frequently means a chance to become educated, join the workforce, and to raise fewer children. Many of these gains do not require huge investments in new technology, and in fact they largely require intensive efforts to ensure that existing low-cost, effective solutions simply get into the hands of the people who need them. For instance, the widespread delivery of long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets has begun to make a significant dent in malaria (down 60 percent in the last 15 years).

The SDGs continue to put pressure on ending poverty and its associated challenges of hunger, clean water, health, education, and gender equality. In fact, the scope of the goals has been extended to include relative inequality as well. But most dramatically, they now include a much stronger stance in dealing with climate change. One of the deep complexities of sustainable development is the pent-up growth that successfully bringing the developing world out of poverty represents. Even if fertility rates fall along with decreasing poverty, people who have long been excluded from their share of global prosperity are set to put increasing demands on the shared resource base. It seems difficult for the developed world, which has long enjoyed its advantages (gained first through the active exclusion of colonialism and then at the cost of concerted environmental exploitation) to convince the developing world that now they must be more cautious. Sustainable energy and agriculture will be necessary here, and they are places where our faith rests largely on technological advances that have yet to arrive. The SDGs include targets for both of these problems, but they are unsurprisingly vague about the path to sustainability. 

In the face of absolutely unprecedented global threats like climate change, it is tempting to be skeptical about the value of the grand call to action that the SDGs represent. The SDGs, however, aren't meant to solve problems by themselves. They're meant for coordinating our attention on the sorts of challenges humans are especially bad at solving—ones that are slow to develop via lots of individually insignificant actions, most directly affect people with whom we don't have contact, and are intergenerational in their impact. The greatest threat to the SDGs satisfaction is not likely to be the failure of the developing world to progressively improve the lives of their citizens. It will, instead, be the unwillingness of the developed world to do its part in moving toward sustainable consumption and production. "Doing more and better with less," as Goal 12 requires, is unfortunately perceived as a heavy lift for places like the United States, which have been unwilling to accept limitations that potentially constrain its economic interests. This may be part of what underlies the assumption that sustainable development requires indefinite global economic growth. Even so, the Global Goals' manage to echo Pope Francis's  injunction that "we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it."  Whether we manage to act on that shared conviction will define both the prospects for sustainable development and the future stability of the planet.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

Archive

| By Madeleine Nicholson

Fragile States and Pandemics: Why Preparedness Cannot Happen in a Vacuum

The second largest Ebola outbreak in history is raging on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and international response has been comparatively quiet. Given the DRC’s recent historical similarities to Sierra Leone, the country that suffered the most cases and deaths during the 2014 outbreak, it is imperative that the world take notice and provide a rapid and holistic response.


Wait Just a Minute: Karen Donfried

German Marshall Fund president and former member of the National Security Council, Karen Donfried answers questions on a post-Merkel Germany, if Russia can be contained without the United States, and why Americans should care about European affairs.





| By Brian Hanson, Lesley Carhart, Adam Segal

Deep Dish: Chinese Cyber Attacks and Industrial Espionage

The massive Marriott records breach was the latest in a series of economic espionage cases attributed to China. Top cybersecurity experts Lesley Carhart and Adam Segal join this week's Deep Dish podcast to discuss the evolving tactical and policy challenges involved in managing international cyber space.


Wait Just a Minute: David Sanger

David Sanger, national security correspondent and senior writer for the New York Times, answers questions on cyberattacks: why they've become the new weapon of choice for foreign adversaries, the most likely suspects behind the next cyberattack, and who he'd most like to interview on the subject.



| By Victoria Williams

Top 8 Most Watched Programs in 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, we invite you to look back at the most watched Council programs of 2018.



| By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: Russia's Crimea Campaign Enters the Kerch Strait

A recent incident between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait may seem minor, but the stakes are real. If this action by Russia goes unpunished, it could pave the way for Russia to take more territory in eastern Ukraine to establish a land-bridge between Russia and Crimea, which President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed in 2014.


| By Brian Hanson, Gregory Johnsen

Deep Dish: The War in Yemen

The war in Yemen has created one of the greatest unseen humanitarian tragedies in the world. It finally drew public attention after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which triggered a debate about US involvement in the war.


| By Iain Whitaker

Podium Notes: 20 Eye-Opening Stats From the Council's 2018 Programs

Trade wars, false missile warnings, "babble fish earbuds", and Germany's World Cup whimper: 2018 was a year that sometimes defined description, at least in words. But the numbers tell a story of their own, so here's a smattering of startling stats mentioned on the Council's stage in 2018. To view the full clip, click on the numbers! (These figures were stated by guest speakers and have not been verified by the Council)