Monday comment1

Folawiyo K. Olajoku writes that the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty

The history of the concept of sustainable development could begin with the US government’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. This act came largely in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which had a devastating impact on wildlife and the natural environment in the area. But it was also the product of greater societal attention to the consequences of industrial pollution, awareness of which was promoted by the 1962 publication Silent Spring by Rachael Carson. Around the same time, and as a result of the same push towards great concern for the environment, arrived the Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Act, the push to ban DDT, and the institution of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Shortly after the passage of NEPA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened its doors in 1970, promoting protection of the environment through research, standard-setting, and monitoring. The goals of the EPA concerned both human health as well as natural resource protection.

The next step in the growth of sustainable development as a mainstream concept and practice was the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, Sweden. This conference “brought the industrialized and developing nations together to delineate the ‘rights’ of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. A series of such meetings followed, e.g. on the rights of people to adequate food, to sound housing, to safe water, to access to means of family planning. The recognition to revitalize humanity’s connection with nature, led to the creation of global institutions within the UN system.

The first time the term ‘sustainable’ was used “in the modern sense” was as part of the Club of Rome, in 1972. This came to the fore as a part of the publication of Limits to Growth, a report that described a particular state in which the global population would achieve balance or equilibrium. “Describing the desirable “state of global equilibrium”, the authors used the word “sustainable”: “We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: one, sustainable without sudden and uncontrolled collapse; and two, capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.

About 15 years after the Club of Rome’s publication came another large step forward in this movement, at least according to most mainstream sources. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was tasked by the Secretary General of the UN, in 1983, to “re-examine critical environmental and development problems around the world and formulate realistic proposals to address them.” This culminated in the 1987 Bruntland Report’s publication of “Our Common Future”, which established a suggested path for sustainable development on a global level and served to bring the concept of sustainability into the foreground on an international level.

The concept of sustainable development formed the basis of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The summit marked the first international attempt to draw up action plans and strategies for moving towards a more sustainable pattern of development. It was attended by over 100 Heads of State and representatives from 178 national governments. The summit was also attended by representatives from a range of other organisations representing civil society. Sustainable development was the solution to the problems of environmental degradation discussed by the Brundtland Commission in the 1987 report, Our Common Future.

The remit of the Brundtland Report was to investigate the numerous concerns that had been raised in previous decades, namely, that human activity was having severe and negative impacts on the planet, and that patterns of growth and development would be unsustainable if they continued unchecked.

Another notable international protocol designed to guide the international community towards sustainable development, in this case particularly environmental, was the Kyoto Climate Agreement in 1997. Its goal was to reduce the emissions of its signatories, with more emphasis placed on those developed countries which were responsible for most of the air pollution and its subsequent consequences. It might be noted that the United States is the only developed country and one of the only two in general (the other being South Sudan) that has not ratified this protocol.

More recently, the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg in 2002, attended by 191 national governments, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions and other major groups to assess progress since Rio. The Johannesburg Summit delivered three key outcomes: a political declaration, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and a range of partnership initiatives. Key commitments included those on sustainable consumption and production, water and sanitation, and energy.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were born at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world.

The SDGs replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which started a global effort in 2000 to tackle the indignity of poverty. The MDGs established measurable, universally-agreed objectives for tackling extreme poverty and hunger, preventing deadly diseases, and expanding primary education to all children, among other development priorities.

The SDGs, otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. They consist of 17 goals which are no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequality, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, Life on land, peace and justice strong Institutions, and partnerships to achieve the goal

Dr Olajoku is a
Development Practitioner