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Friday 2nd November 2012
The new ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ will not deliver resilient solutions to environmental problems
Biodiversity, Communities, Food Contributor: Will Bugler

Whatever dust was kicked up by the generally lack-luster happening that was the 2012 Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development, has well and truly settled. The delegates who attended are no doubt relieved that they are able to now once again go about the business of ignoring environmental issues without the elaborate pretence of congregating in a large room in Brazil. However, contrary to popular belief, something was agreed at the conference. Perhaps while the US, Chinese and Canadian negotiators weren’t looking, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that there would be a new set of goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Beyond the fact that yet another environmental summit passed where the only thing that could be agreed on was to agree on future non-binding targets, there are some very good reasons why a set of SDGs are not be the answer to our environmental problems. First of all one might assume by the fact that the SDGs are to replace the current set of MDGs that the latter was on course to be achieved.

You would of course be wrong; the MDGs have not exactly been a resounding success. In fact global hunger appears to be climbing, and with climate change and a rising population this is a trend that is set to continue. There could be as many as one billion people living in extreme poverty by 2015 and water scarcity is becoming a critical issue with damaging health consequences. Water abstraction for agriculture is rising, not falling while total available potable resources are dropping. Not exactly a resounding victory for global development.

The MDGs were devised by the renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, as a way to galvanise government action on poverty reduction. He developed the eight MDGs to set poverty reduction targets for each country to achieve by 2015. These goals were successful on a number of fronts; they attracted considerable attention, laid down benchmarks and importantly attracted finance from governments. Having solid targets to aim for is useful from a policy point of view; they focus efforts and provide a yardstick of success. The problem with targets is when they become the central goal around which policy is organised rather than simply a measure of its relative success.

In the UK the education system was bombarded by targets under Tony Blair’s New Labour government. Schools, under pressure from league tables and Ofsted inspections, naturally began to focus on hitting the targets rather than the needs of the children. The targets were hit. But the quality of education slipped, leaving the UK lagging in international education rankings.

As with the MDGs, Jeffrey Sachs is set to lead the charge on the SDGs too. His conviction that they will be successful remains undimmed: “We need goals to keep the world together and at least roughly on track because we argue about so many things agreeing a few things is extremely important. My own experience over the past decade as a special adviser to the Secretary General, first Kofi Anan and now Ban Ki Moon on the Millennium Development Goals has really convinced me that having global goals to fight poverty, hunger and disease has really mobilised action. It has opened eyes, and energies people to fight poverty”, he said, speaking at the Rio conference.

The problem with his assertion is that it assumes that energy and action are all that is needed to reach the set target. This is not borne out by a reality that throws up unexpected events; and it is not borne out by the experience of the MDGs either. In his book ‘The End of Poverty’ Sachs explains that there was great optimism about the MDGs and “a palpable sense that this time—yes, this time—they just might be fulfilled”. But to his great frustration, he explains that unexpected events occurred throwing the goals off course: the Bush Vs Gore election, September 11th and the end of the 1990s stock market boom years. Promises were broken, targets missed.

In her book Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now Deborah Frieze, co-president of the Berkana Institute, highlights the hole in Sachs’ theory; “Sachs’ explanation seems to imply that the MDGs would be on track, if only these disruptions hadn’t occurred. That’s the illusion of the “optimal state”— a future in which things like oil shocks, failed governments and terrorist attacks don’t happen. The illusion may work well in the short-term, but in the long-term, life unfolds unpredictably and chaotically”.

Setting targets for sustainable development is fine, but defining environmental policy by them is a futile exercise as it assumes that we live in an unchanging world. In their book on resilience theory, ecologist Brian Walker elaborates on the problem with optimization: “The more you optimise elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal,” he writes, “the more you diminish that system’s resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.

So, from a resilience perspective, trying to shape the world to meet specific goals is actually counterproductive. The likely effect of the SDGs will be to channel resources towards a narrow set of fixed goals rather than to fostering the conditions that will promote resilience in human and natural systems. 

On a more encouraging note, Ban Ki Moon also announced the launch of a Sustainable Development Solutions Network that will be made up of research centres, universities and technical institutions. Given the right resources this has the potential to provide some truly beneficial solutions to pressing environmental problems and will, with some luck, be able to recognise the SDGs as a tool to monitor progress, rather than the central aim of environmental policy making.


Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government's advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.

Joel | Profession | 05.10.2013 | 15:21
Craig,Yesterday I went to the FW campus and your team there let us check out your fictlaiy and pick their brains for about 30-45 minutes. They were professional and cutting edge. I was impressed by all I saw there. They gave us a sample of new believers follow up material. Great stuff. Great staff. Great resilience. Thanks for being there.
John Plodinec | Visionary | 16.01.2013 | 20:13
Comment: One of the problems I see with these targets is that they do not recognize on what level of the system these problems reside (also an idea from Walker). I would argue that "poverty" implies a societal problem - to be solved at a societal level. But poverty is really a multitude of people being poor, I.e., it must be solved at the individual level. Scale matters!