The United Nations Adopts the 2030 Global Sustainability Agenda
This fall, the U.N. General Assembly officially approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included 17 goals explicitly designed to address global challenges on in a multinational effort to improve the quality of life all over the world. These Sustainable Development Goals are reminiscent of the previous Millennium Development Goals, but take a more targeted approach tackle issues along a wide variety of sociopolitical and economic spaces.
Each goal is comprised of a smaller, quantifiable benchmarks in order to encourage measurable progress. Altogether, there are officially 169 of these targets, which 193 national governments have now agreed to tackle and track. The specific indicators which will be used to evaluate performance will be determined at a future U.N. session.
Accomplishing this lofty task will undoubtedly prove a considerable logistical obstacle. For example, consider Goal 11, which aims to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” In theory, achieving such transformation for major urban centers is clearly a worthwhile endeavor. However, when one inspects the nuts and bolts of an action plan, many unanswered questions still arise. The Local Authorities Major Group, a coalition of NGOs and subnational government stakeholders charged with providing feedback to the United Nations, posed this exact question in a position paper released earlier this year. The proposed metrics such as setting target goals for “percentage of people within 0.5 km of public transit running at least every 20 minutes,”or a “percentage of urban solid waste regularly collected and well managed.”
The set of guidelines the United Nations eventually adopts will almost certainly mirror these kinds of metrics. However, picking how the goals will be measured in way that can encompass every target while remaining meaningful and productive for every single country runs the risk of devolving into the arbitrary. Additionally, the proposed 15 year timeline is exceedingly optimistic and will be quite a tight deadline to meet even one, much less all 17, of the stated goals.
Fortunately, one of the biggest positive aspects of the U.N. adopting the Sustainable Development Goals has less to do with exactly what will be accomplished and much more to do with how it indicates a shift in the governance paradigm. These goals are clearly written in a way that finally embraces the importance of local government involvement and partnership. This kind of perspective was once rather rare from large multilateral institutions like the United Nations. At a recent meeting of an international alliance of governors and mayors who endorse the Sustainable Development Goals, U.S. governor of California Jerry Brown vocalized the now widely held belief that “when it comes to sustainability, environmental protection, social inclusion, and creating a prosperity that can spread, mayors can do something about that.” The Executive Director of the U.N. Human Settlements Programme Joan Clos i Mathew echoed the sentiment, stating that success “calls for an urban transformation that requires political will and the capacity to coordinate many actors and stakeholders. … Most importantly, [mayors] can give a voice to their citizens.”
The most immediate benefit of these Sustainable Development Goals will likely be that they might galvanize and empower change on the local level. This, in and of itself, will be an enormous step forwards towards a more sustainable future.