Chapter 7: The UN Sustainable Development Goals

Tai Munro

Key Ideas

In this chapter, you will learn about:

  • the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • how the SDGs connect with systems thinking and the areas of sustainability that have been covered thus far

Agenda 2030

Most organizations have some sort of plan for what they want to do. You might have a plan that you are using to guide your own actions at the moment. To guide these plans, we generally need a goal or vision we want to reach. A term you might hear is BHAG, which stands for big hairy audacious goal. A BHAG isn’t supposed to be something that will be easy to achieve. It should be big and potentially even a little innovative or trend-setting. The audacity of the goal helps define a vision for the future and gets people to work together to achieve it.

Reflection 7.1: BHAG for the World

Take some time and think about what the world would look like if you had complete control. Don’t let the current reality constrain you. What would you want the world to be like? Some areas you may want to consider include:

  • Is there money? An alternative economic system? Do people have to earn something to get something? Are people’s material needs met automatically, or do they have to do something to get them?
  • Where do you live? What type of housing is there? Do you share with others or have your own space? Do you have neighbours? What are they like?
  • What are the relationships between people like? Does everyone respect each other? Is society hierarchical? On what criteria is the hierarchy built?
  • What does the planet look like? Are humans considered part of nature and the planet or separate from it? Are natural systems mixed with human ones or separated?

Agenda 2030 “is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015). It addresses peace, poverty, environmental degradation, human rights, and gender equality. The SDGs are laid out within Agenda 2030. They are a BHAG for the planet. They are intended to challenge and inspire people around the world to work together to achieve the goals. Watch the video (1:54) for an overview of the goals.

Recommended Resource

Check out Agenda 2030. While it is quite long, it is interesting to read how they introduced a BHAG for the world.

As we have seen so far, sustainability includes many different areas. In addition, we need to take a systems perspective to achieve sustainability. There are limits to an individual’s perspective or even the perspective of a single city, region, or nation. What concerns Canada or the United States is not the same as for Tuvalu, an island country that is expected to be completely submerged by rising sea levels due to climate change within the next few decades. However, many sustainability issues do not stay within borders. Widespread forest fires in Canada resulted in widespread air quality issues in the U.S. in 2023. Clothing purchased in North America may be made under unethical and unsustainable conditions in places such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, then disposed of in places like Ghana. Greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries are primarily at fault for Antarctica’s ice sheet loss and Tuvalu’s impending loss.

The United Nations is an international organization. It currently has 193 Member States. The United Nations is “one place where the world’s nations can gather together, discuss common problems, and find shared solutions” (United Nations, About Us, para. 1). The SDGs arise from this network and therefore acknowledge the problems and targets at a global scale. At the same time, there is recognition that every nation will have its own path towards the goals. The goals are intended to provide targets without being prescriptive about how to get there. Thus, there are both challenges and opportunities with the SDGs. Some examples are discussed below.


Common Language

The goals and their associated targets can help people, organizations, and countries talk about sustainability in ways that are commonly understood by all parties. Or at least, the conversations can start from this common base, which can help speed up the amount of time it takes for people to communicate clearly with each other.

Illustrate the Breadth of Sustainability

As we discussed earlier, many people think of sustainability as being about the environment. Something along the lines of using fewer resources so that there are resources left for the future. But as we’ve seen thus far, sustainability necessarily includes economic, social, cultural, and environmental components interconnected in ways that they cannot be separated. By including goals relating to areas like education, poverty, gender, peace and justice, and environment, the goals illustrate how many components there are within sustainability.

They Are a BHAG

The very nature of having these international goals can give organizations and governments something to aim for that is an international goal. They have the potential to help break down artificial borders by focusing on the world as a whole instead of its individual pieces. In short, they give a target for the system to aim at, rather than just parts of the system.


Can Lead to Assumptions

While the SDGs give us a common language, there is also a risk that comes with this. What if we think about quality education differently from each other? We might be using the same terms but actually talking about different things. By starting with a common language, we might forget that we still need to clarify what that means.

Do the Goals Go Far Enough?

The very term sustainable development is full of controversy. Does everyone agree that development, if it is done sustainably, is the goal? Development implies growth, but can we continue to grow without stopping?

Are the Goals Inclusive?

Do the goals have space for all cultures and ways of being? Target 4.6 states that all youth and many adults will have literacy and numeracy. What does this mean? Does being literate mean that we can read certain written texts? What about someone who can read the land to find herds of caribou, can hunt and gather to find food, can contribute to their family but can’t read — does that mean the goal has failed?

Reflection 7.2: Are the Goals Representative of Sustainability?

Consider what you have learned about systems thinking. Do you think that you could create a systems map of the SDGs? Are they interconnected with each other? Can you eliminate poverty without also achieving quality education and gender equality? Do we need peace and justice to have economic growth? What happens if we treat them separately instead of as interconnected?

Do you see the different domains of sustainability — culture, social, environment, and economics — in the 17 goals? Is there anything missing? Are they given equal weight? Is this good or bad?


Activity 7.1: 170 Actions to Change the World

Go to 170 Actions to Combat Climate Change. Choose one of the goals you are interested in, then select it and choose one or more of the actions identified under that goal to combat climate change and do the action. Then record:

  • your reasons for choosing the specific goal and action(s)
  • what you did to complete the action
  • reflection on your experience

Also, answer the question:

  • In what ways do you think the goal and the specific action you chose contribute to a more sustainable world?

Other Global Initiatives

There are a number of different global initiatives that have been in place for varying lengths of time. Many, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which identifies education, food, and recognition as a person before the law as just three of the fundamental rights that everyone has, focus on items that have been integrated into the SDGs in some way. We will briefly look at a few relevant initiatives here. There are links at the end that you can review for more information.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015 by 196 parties. The goal was to limit the global average temperature increase to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Recently, there has been more stress on limiting warming to 1.5°C, as this number has been identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as leading to severe climate change impacts.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Specifically related to climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assesses the science related to climate change. The reports review current scientific, technical, and socio-economic knowledge about climate change impacts, risks, and mitigation options. One goal of the IPCC reports is to be policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive. This means that they aim to provide objective and transparent reviews regarding the state of knowledge so that other bodies, such as national governments, can develop appropriate policies for adaptation and mitigation.

Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi)

Science-based targets is an initiative specifically for corporate climate action. Created through a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the SBTi identifies best practices for reducing emissions and setting net-zero targets and provides technical assistance and resources. The initiative is created based on the idea that private industry is necessary in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing resilience and mitigation practices. This organization supports and encourages the private sector to take action regardless of government regulation or public pressure.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

This declaration provides a framework for the minimum standards regarding the survival, dignity, and well-being of the world’s Indigenous Peoples. It extends existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms to apply to the specific contexts of Indigenous Peoples. Notably, although these countries have now supported the declaration, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States voted against the declaration when it was first adopted in 2007.






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Introduction to Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Tai Munro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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