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The UN Sustainable Development Goals haven’t had much impact so far

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By Frank Biermann

· 6 min read

The Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the United Nations went into verbal overdrive. World leaders convened in the UN assembly hall in New York to sign on to a new “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” with the added caption “Transforming our World”. Governments declared their firm resolve “to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet,” supported by their public determination “to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path.” To dissolve any remaining doubt, world leaders pledged “to work tirelessly” for the full implementation of this agenda.

At the core of this agenda are seventeen “Sustainable Development Goals,” with 169 more detailed targets and over 200 indicators. There is almost nothing that the UN does not seek to improve with these goals: from reducing poverty and hunger to securing better health, education, gender equality, sanitation, energy, economic growth, infrastructure and urbanization, while reducing social inequality, ensuring sustainable consumption, protecting the climate, oceans, biodiversity and forests, and furthering peace and justice.

To give just a few examples of the 169 targets relating to these overarching goals, governments agreed in the SDGs to halve by 2030 the proportion of people in poverty, to end hunger by 2030, to halve the number of global deaths from road traffic accidents, to ensure that all children complete free, equitable and quality education, to implement integrated water resources management, to raise the income of the poorest 40% of their population at a rate above the national average, and to integrate biodiversity values into planning and poverty reduction strategies. And the list goes on.

One finds these sustainable development goals wherever UN bureaucrats and international diplomats meet. You’ll see the seventeen flags of the SDGs in the lush gardens at UN headquarters in New York, overlooking the East River. Engaging posters with the SDGs hang in government offices all over the world, along with specialized websites and dozens of international meetings in their support. The UN even announced an international “decade of action” relating to these global goals. In the Netherlands, where I live, the government has appointed an SDG coordinator whom I once spotted in an electric car painted in SDG colors and a suit with the SDGs printed on the inner lining. In short, if you turn over a stone, you may find an SDG under it.

The dilemma

And yet, it is fair to ask: do these global goals change anything in real life? Do they have tangible impacts on governments, business leaders, mayors, UN top bureaucrats, university presidents, and so on? And on change on the ground? For the last few years, a growing community of social scientists has looked into this question. We have now brought all this research together in a meta-analysis of over three thousand academic studies that focus on the SDGs, conducted by a group of 61 authors from all over the world. The gist of our comprehensive meta-analysis of the state-of-the-art understanding of SDG implementation and impact has been published on 20 June 2022 in Nature Sustainability. The complete and more detailed assessment is published as a book by Cambridge University Press in July 2022. Both publications are open access – because we find it vitally important to freely share what we found.

Unfortunately, our findings are disheartening. Yes, we see some impact of the SDGs in the way that people talk, think and write about global sustainability challenges. Governments mention the SDGs in their national reports to the UN, and some have set up coordinating units on “SDG implementation.” Global corporations like to refer often to the SDGs as well – especially to those goals that are least disruptive for their commercial activities, like SDG 8 that links economic growth to sustainability. And unsurprisingly, UN organizations are all formally aligned with the SDGs.

Nothing, however, has changed where it matters. We could not find much impact in terms of concrete and far-reaching new programs, policies, institutions, laws, or budget allocations designed to further specific goals. Did any government significantly change their laws to move societies and economies towards the many intersecting transformations envisioned by the SDGs, and did any ministry set up a new program for implementing the SDGs? There is little evidence of this. What we found are changes in discourses – the talk is different, with those in power now referring to the SDGs more often. Yet their action has not changed, by and large.

What next?

What should we make of this? There are the optimists who point to the SDG timeline: the SDGs were agreed to in 2015 and are to be achieved only by 2030. The meta-analysis that we publish today relies largely on research published before 2021. In other words, we have eight more years to go. Those important actors today talk differently about sustainability and refer to the SDGs more often can thus be seen as a sign of hope – that this “SDG talk” will be followed by “SDG action.” And yet, mere “SDG talk” can also backfire. It can confer global legitimacy on unsustainable behavior, even as it lets corporate leaders wave colorful SDG flags in public while focusing on profits in business-as-usual scenarios. The “SDG talk” can even demobilize, by creating a false impression of action, hope and a sustainability transition even as the promised transformations remains elusive. The “SDG talk” can produce a global smokescreen of action and progress that hides a reality of delay and stagnation.

Let me hasten to add: I do not want to belittle or downplay the importance of having the SDGs, and our study is only a snapshot of the present-day state of SDG implementation. The SDGs do reflect some wonderfully high-minded global ambitions, not least by focusing also on global inequalities (SDG 10), improved national and global institutions (SDG 16), and the reduction of harmful consumption patterns in the Global North (SDG 12).

But we have to make the goals actually work. Civil society and progressive social movements need to prick through the verbal bubbles of “SDG talk” and clear the smokescreen of SDG illusionism. Government leaders and industry bosses must not be permitted to hide behind flashy SDG flags in their offices, SDG buttons on their coat lapels and SDG logos on their glossy pamphlets. The SDGs cannot remain a lofty inspiration. We need to convert their promise to real action.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Frank Biermann is a political scientist and international lawyer specializing in the study of how to transform global institutions for sustainable development. After pre- and postdoctoral studies in Berlin, Aberdeen and Harvard he moved in 2003 to the Netherlands, first as a professor of Environmental Policy Analysis at VU University Amsterdam and since 2015 as a professor of Global Sustainability Governance at Utrecht University. Biermann is among others the founder and first chair of the Earth System Governance Project, a global transdisciplinary research network with several hundred members. At present, Biermann directs a 2.5 million EUR project on the impacts of the Sustainable Development Goals, financed by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council. In 2021, the International Studies Association awarded him the Distinguished Scholar Award in Environmental Studies.

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