The United Nations Rio +20 conference in 2012 culminated in a vague, unambitious document that does little to define or outline any measurable goals or strategies to promote environmental conservation and justice. Though soundly criticized by environmental activists and organizations across the globe, the conference did pave the way for a conversation about sustainable development, and provide an avenue for implementing specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as updates to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which expire in 2015. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, “Let us develop a new generation of sustainable development goals to pick up where the MDGs leave off. Let us agree on the means to achieve them.” The challenge now is defining the SDGs and developing measurable outcomes.
David Griggs and his colleagues at the Monash Sustainability Institute argue for a clearer definition of sustainable development to drive the SDGs: “Development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends.” This definition restructures the paradigm of sustainable development, nesting the global economy within Earth’s life-support system, essentially making the argument that being responsible environmental stewards is the only way to ensure long-term economic and social sustainability. Based on this restructured paradigm, Griggs and his colleagues have updated the MDGs to encompass planetary well-being, and offer six Sustainable Development Goals for 2030: thriving lives and livelihoods through ending poverty and improving education, employment, health, and housing; sustainable food security; sustainable water security; universal clean energy; healthy and productive ecosystems; and governance for sustainable societies.
These goals, while still largely undefined and unspecific, could provide a useful starting point for creating tangible benchmarks and policy options. It is important to point out that Griggs argues that changes to the economic playing field are vitally important in order to implement any of these goals, an argument echoed by many researchers around the world as traditional methods for implementing change are becoming outdated. Wealthy nations must rein in their spending practices and reduce consumption in tandem with developing countries incorporating clean energy into their infrastructures. The SDGs are “not about the rich giving to the poor. The new agenda is the whole world reaching sustainability,” argues a member of one expert panel seeking to influence the development of the SDGs.
Funneling aid money from wealthy countries to developing countries can fuel corruption and reduce autonomy, and often fails to address the systemic issues faced by developing countries. Instead of accepting aid, developing nations need to create institutions that offer local assistance in developing sustainable practices. Indeed, less-developed nations could benefit from the fact that they are not locked into a fossil-fuel dependent system, and can utilize advanced technologies to spur their own economic development. As the UN embarks upon the fourth session of its Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, it is vital that they remain cognizant of what sustainability truly means – not simply ensuring economic security for humans, but ensuring a thriving planet that can support itself, for without that stable planetary life-support system civilization will be crushed beneath the vast pressure our unsustainable economies exert on it.