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What is Sustainable Development and Why Does it Matter?
2015, the United Nations achieved international agreement for its 2030
Agenda on Sustainable Development. The agenda identifies 17 Goals and
169 targets to address a number of economic, environmental, and social
concerns facing the world today. I was fortunate to attend the UN Summer
Academy in Bonn, Germany from August 22-26 to learn more about the
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I went to Bonn to learn about the
goals and, in particular, make linkages to management practice. In this
post, I will discuss what the sustainable development agenda covers and
why it matters.
What is sustainable development?
The definition of sustainable development that is used by the UN is:
“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising
the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
What do the Sustainable Development Goals cover?
There are 17 Goals that cover five key themes.
Below are excerpts from the descriptions of the five themes:
• People: to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment;
• Planet: to protect the planet... through sustainable consumption and
production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent
action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the
present and future generations;
• Prosperity: to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and
fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress
occurs in harmony with nature;
• Peace: to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free
from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without
peace and no peace without sustainable development;
• Partnership: to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda
through ... the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all
How is the Sustainable Development Agenda different to other agendas such as the Millennium Development Declaration?
poverty is seen as an “indispensable requirement of sustainable
development.” This is why the Sustainable Development agenda compliments
and extend other agreements. For example, the Sustainable Development
agenda extends the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, which were
designed to eradicate extreme poverty and improve the health and welfare
of the world’s poorest people by 2015; it complements the 2015 Paris
Agreement on Climate Change.
defining characteristic of the Sustainable Development Agenda is that it
is intended to apply to all economies, not just the world’s poorest.
This is why economies such as the USA need to pay close attention to the
agenda as the USA (alongside the other 192 economies that signed the
Sustainable Development agreement) will now be measured against how well
it achieves the goals.
Why is sustainable development on the radar now?
There are growing fears that current levels of economic development are
not sustainable. A key focus is the impact economic growth has had on
the environment - in particular human activity that has caused an uptick
in greenhouse gases such as methane or CO2, which in turn have caused
the atmosphere to retain heat.
was first introduced back in 1896 when Svante Arrhenius predicted that
emissions of carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels and other
combustion processes were large enough to cause global warming.
But it is also
important to put the concept of global warming into current context. In
1896, when Arrhenius first started writing about climate change, only
1.6 billion people lived on the planet and the world GDP was valued at
around US$1.6 trillion. Now, our planet is home to 7.2 billion people
and GDP has grown by about 4000%.
Not only has
the population grown, but defining characteristics of the population
have changed. For example, 700 million fewer people live in extreme
poverty conditions in 2010 than in 1990. But as poverty goes down,
protein consumption goes up and farming methods become more intensive.
phenomenon is that of the rising global middle class, which is predicted
to increase from 1.8 billion people in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and
4.9 billion by 2030. Most growth will come from Asia. In fact, by 2030
Asia will represent 66% of the global middle-class population and 59% of
middle-class consumption, compared to 28% and 23%, respectively in
composition of the population changes, policy makers have turned their
attention away from economic development to sustainable [economic]
Achieving sustainable development requires tradeoffs
As the discussion above indicates, a sustainable development agenda
requires tradeoffs across three components: economic, social and
environmental. For example, eradicating poverty is accompanied by more
intensive farming methods; the rising middle class leads to more
industrialization and/or growing cities. Each of these changes come at
an environmental cost. So the interlinkages between economic, social and
environmental issues need to be considered.
agreements such as the Millennium Development Agenda or the Paris
Agreement on Climate change tend to focus on one of the three components
of sustainable development: economic, social or environmental, whereas
the SDGs take into account the relationships between these three
In addition, a
number of the Sustainable Development Goals are new and relate to
implementing the sustainable development agenda. Issues of
implementation were largely overlooked in, e.g., the Millennium
Development agenda. Examples of these new goals include:
• Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all; and
• Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
from the relationships between social, economic, and environmental
concerns, what else does the Sustainable Development Agenda spotlight?
The UN Summer
Academy was action packed and we were fortunate to hear from many
speakers covering a vast range of topics. I personally came away with a
few other insights that will shape my work in this space:
• Since not all growth is sustainable, countries and organizations
should consider the economic consequences of lower growth targets as
they balance these against environmental and social considerations.
• In addition, economic growth in high income countries has slowed. This
might be because younger generations (e.g., Millennials and Generation
Z) care less about consumption and more about the planet than
generations before them. Therefore, not only do organizations need to
pay attention to the Sustainable Development Goals, and the tradeoffs
they require, but also slower economic growth might well be the new
economic growth gives people and organizations more choices, measures of
economic growth should be considered alongside people-centric measures
such as human capital development, inclusivity, happiness or well-being,
and environment-centric measures such as reducing the carbon footprint.
That is economic growth should be repositioned as the means to the end,
rather than the end in and of itself.
• Innovation has both positive and negative consequences. For example,
innovation can be directed at productivity improvements, some of which
can deplete natural resources, or new product development, some of which
results in over-consumption. Innovation also ensures organizational and
community sustainability. Again, tradeoffs need to be made.
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There is much
work to be done to better understand and implement the Sustainable
Development Goals but for now, the message is clear: business as usual
is not an option.