Happy birthday SDGs

Urban life 25 September 2020 Martin Christiansen

5 years ago today, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were born. This article brings a personal reflection and asks whether we even have something to celebrate. Read on and decide for yourself.

7 min

By Martin Christiansen

Did you know that with the current trajectories, we will likely reach 3 degrees of global warming way before we reach full equality between men and women…?

Announced as a global call for action, 193 countries agreed on the Global Goals. My fellow countryman, Lars Løkke Rasmussen – Danish Prime Minister at the time, concluded the official adoption of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. That was in New York on September 25, 2015.

So, the question today is; do we have something to celebrate at this 5-year birthday? Are we developing sustainably in terms of climate, equality, health, peace, and so on?

It is a birthday, alright. But is it a happy one too? Well… yes and no.
Let’s dig into the ‘on the one hand – on the other hand’ paradox of the Global Goals.

The world’s greatest plan

The United Nations are not always united. But in the case of the Global Goals they were. And why wouldn’t they be so? The goals are so all-encompassing that it seems like everyone got their say included. That is a part of the power - and a part of the problem. Think about your own organisation; what are the odds of everyone agreeing to a common agenda? As in everyone…? That is simply extraordinary.

Then consider; what are the odds of your organisation being able to deliver on 169 targets using hundreds of indicators to see if you were on the right track? Power and problem.

Let’s look at the power first.

The SDGs are sometimes referred to as the world’s greatest plan. Although they may leave people both enthusiastic and overwhelmed, the unified backing to the goals is unprecedented.

Stakeholders coming together

I attended the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February 2018 as Ramboll co-hosted a client event with C40 Cities. We unveiled a report on the co-benefits of urban climate actions and showed how many of those actions had a positive spill-over effect on numerous SDGs.

The Forum was a UN led event with the motto ‘Leave no one Behind’. For me personally, a vital eye-opener. Here, I realised how truly global the movement towards a more sustainable world in fact is. When you mostly see SDG pens on – well, white middle-aged men in suits – you will be amazed by the transformative power brought to life by a myriad of people from all over the globe.

And on a local level, I have been to political festivals and stakeholder sessions as part of delivering Denmark’s first local SDG baseline. The way all stakeholders in society come together on this topic is something I have never seen before.

Danish stakeholder engagement process for national SDG 11 baseline.

Communicative masterpiece

And why is this? The ‘marketing’ of the SDGs is in my view an undebatable success. As someone in communications, I think we owe part of the success to the visual masterpiece that is the SDGs. A colorful universe with intuitive graphics that transcend regional, cultural, and linguistic barriers. Even the headlines are kept short (for the most parts). ‘No Poverty’ is pretty easy to understand for everyone. Perhaps less so with e.g. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure. But even there, you will recognise the rhythm to goal no. 9, which makes it easier to remember.

Swedish-based agency Trollbäck & Co. made magic with the visual design that now brings colour to pens, cubes, t-shirts, gif-animations, footballs, heck even boat sails and much, much more.     

Awareness may not lead to any change, but change-makers know that you cannot drive any change if you do not create awareness first. Now that SDG awareness is established and still growing day-by-day, it makes sense to name the twenties the Decade of Action. From awareness to action.

The Millennium Development Goals that were set before the SDGs actually had a visual umbrella but a less effective one. What they lacked in appearance, the made up for in impact: For instance, when I was only a boy, in 1990, 1,9 billion people lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, more than one billion people had been lifted out of extreme poverty. We can accomplish a lot together when we set ambitious goals.

A helping hand from businesses

Unlike the old goals, the SDGs apply to all countries and not just the developing world. That is important. Every Head of State, every Government and every citizen has a responsibility to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals are met. Therefore, you will likely have heard the phrase; The SDGs are not the UN’s goals, they are everyone’s goals. Yours and mine.

Although it is a national imperative to deliver on the Global Goals, governments get a helping hand from businesses. What has surprised me the most is that it is not just major corporations getting involved. Small and medium sized business are in it for the long run. Some more committed than others, but they are there to do well by doing good. And as the market for sustainable development is estimated at 12 trillion USD, many companies see a strong business case.

Even start-ups and scale-ups take part. Global innovation firm, Rainmaking estimates that 31.3 billion USD has been assigned to the +2000 ‘impact start-ups’ that are in the firm’s SDG Compass database.

The corporate uptake may be slow in some countries and there are cases of ‘SDG-washing’ out there but in this northern part of the world, both corporations, public entities, institutions, and NGO’s push forward – and in some cases - more ambitiously than policy-makers.  

A European top 10

So, the Danes happened to lead the UN Assembly in the remarkable 2015 (the year included the Paris Agreement) and the Swedes did the marvel SDG design. One may wonder if this fun fact influences the global SDG ranking…?

Well, what do you know… The two neighbouring countries compete at the top of the charts with the Swedes having the lead this year. In the chart below, it is evident that many countries are doing well against the SDGs. 100 points mark the total completion of all global goals.

Top 10 in global rank on SDG performance: https://dashboards.sdgindex.org/rankings

Looking at the top 10, Europe has something to celebrate. Seemingly, a democratic, egalitarian, just society with strong institutions is the gift that keeps on giving. The first non-European country on the list is New Zealand ranking 16.

Unlike the Nordic peers, Norway is outside top 5, largely due to a lower so-called spill-over score causing negative spill-over effect for other countries. Despite the Tesla-friendly infrastructure, large oil exports seem to hamper a top position for the Norwegians.

Let’s not point any fingers here. All top 10s are alarmingly red on goal 12 and 13; Responsible Production and Consumption as well as Climate Action. This is for most developed countries the major problem. It is a problem to the extent that corporations and governments speak less about the SDGs and more about climate action as a stand-alone priority.

As the goals are highly interlinked this can be a dangerous route. On the other hand, few goals have a tipping point like the climate, so we need to quickly address goal 12 and 13 with full force. After all, emissions must peak before 2030 and we are the last generations to combat climate change before it is too late.

You might say that SDG 13 means bad luck. But remember, 13 is an ‘unlucky number’ because there were 13 people around the table for the last supper. In my view, we cannot be a Judas to climate change.

Alarming numbers

Being a Dane, I admit we like nothing more than getting international praise and attention. But when some of it is largely unjustified, we tend to whip ourselves. So, what could possibly be going wrong in one of the world’s most sustainable countries? First of all, our individual carbon footprint is through the roof due to non-responsible consumption.

If everyone lived liked a Dane, we would overshoot the globe’s resources in March. And the by-product is not just emissions from cars, planes, manufacturing, and so on; for instance, we Danes produce 300 KG more waste than the average EU citizen. Also, despite having a female Prime Minister, there are only 15% women in the Danish executive management teams.

Looking though the global lens, it will take – hold on to your device – an estimated 257 years with the present speed before we have full equality between men and women. Similarly, 8 million tonnes of plastic float our oceans and rivers, 9 in 10 kids breathe toxic air, and one million species are at the brink of extinction. Those and more alarming numbers were presented by UN Global Compact at an SDG hearing in the Danish parliament earlier this week.

A tight deadline

As we have stuff to do, I will have to come to an end.

In the decade of action, we are our own worst enemies. As a top CEO said at UN’s Uniting Business LIVE event this week; “Human procrastination is the biggest obstacle of all”. I could not agree more.

That is why deadlines are so important. For individuals. For society. We have a 2030 deadline. It will be a tight deadline. So, to end on a high note, I think it is fair to proudly mark the 5th birthday of our dear and colourful friend. I cannot think of a bigger, bolder agenda for change in my generation.

But the next few years must take us further and time will tell if we were able to bring the sacrifices needed. Because remember – you cannot eat your birthday cake and have it too.


More on the topic:

Have a look at how Ramboll uses the SDG as a yardstick for progress in delivering sustainable solutions.

Video: See how two projects speaks directly to SDG 2 and SDG 11.


About the author

Martin Christiansen is a senior communications leader in Ramboll’s Management Consulting division. He writes about numerous aspects of sustainability and often represents the business in stakeholder engagements and speaks at universities, special interest groups and more.