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How Sustainable are Sustainable Development Goals?

Hi, again! This is Natasha from the research team.

I believe that many of us are very well familiar with the concept of UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) and sustainable development itself. Although there are many variations in the way sustainable development is defined, we could all agree that it revolves around the idea of keeping development agenda within planetary boundaries (or Earth’s carrying capacity). Many argued that it was not enough to simply extend Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which primarily focused on poverty reduction and improving human well-being since it is undeniable that humans’ activities are transforming the planet in ways that could eventually undermine development gains. Some are also concerned that if we continue with the ‘business as usual’, our future generation might not be able to meet their needs. Long story short, now we have a set of goals that aim to realize sustainable development known as SDGs 2015.

Given the importance of SDGs as one of the most ambitious global agenda, countries’ performance on SDGs are assessed through an index established by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) called SDG index. Our CEO has written a nice blog explaining how SDG indexes are calculated along with its critics and limitations.

However, putting all controversies surrounding SDG index calculation aside, there are actually concerns attacking the very essence of SDGs. I discovered interesting journal articles doubting that SDGs aren't really targeting sustainable development and that SDGs won’t pave the way for sustainable development like they are supposed to.

The main idea of their arguments is that countries that rank high in SDG index are not environmentally sustainable as they also generate high per person demand on nature known as Ecological Footprints (EF). The concept of Ecological Footprint Accounting was established by Mathis Wackernagel and his partner in 1990 and has been considered as a powerful means to measure ecological sustainability. It represents all resource-consuming activities measured in global hectares (gha) per person. Meanwhile, Earth’s capacity to regenerate resources and absorb waste is called biocapacity. According to Wackernagel himself on his Ted Talk, considering there are 7 billion people today, per person ecological footprint quota is only 1.7 gha. And a country is considered to have been on the track of sustainable development only if it has EF not more than 1.7 gha and Human Development Index (HDI) more than 0.7. HDI is UNDP index that caters both social (education and health) and economic aspects of development.

However, if we look at the figure below, countries with high HDI and SDG index (indicated with ranking-country name) are also demanding EF way more than the available biocapacity. Given this information, it appears that SDGs are indeed negating the idea of sustainable development.

HDI, SDG index, and EF data is retrieved from Global Footprint Network

However, I personally think it also depends on how we define and measure environmental sustainability. Ecological Footprints is only one of many indexes. For instance, there is Environmental Performance Index (EPI) (which I’m more familiar with), that also gauges countries’ environmental performance. On its official website, it is mentioned that high EPI scores correlate to countries’ commitments to protect public health, preserve natural resources, and curb greenhouse gas emissions. I tried to construct a similar chart that displays the relationship between HDI and EPI.

And it can be seen from the chart above that now the trend is positive, meaning that HDI and SDG index are consistent with environmental sustainability if EPI is used to measure the sustainability performance.

In conclusion, I believe that SDGs are still not perfect. But, the good thing is that we are aware of those imperfections and thus forcing us to keep seeking for improvements. While it is true that current SDGs do not guarantee sustainability, at the very least we have created a global initiative that undoubtedly has triggered many positive unprecedented changes.

Thanks to this knowledge, now I have never been more inspired to take part in formulating better sustainable development efforts where improvements in human well being do not interfere with the planet stability as we all know that well functioning Earth systems are a prerequisite for a thriving global society.

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