What are the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals?

The United Nations has defined 17 goals, aimed at creating a better world. What are these so-called "Sustainable Development Goals" ? Explanations.

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March 7, 2022

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Table of contents

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) are a set of 17 global goals that have been defined to support the world's transition to sustainable development and sustainable future.

The Sustainable Development Goals are sometimes referred to as the Global Goals. They’re designed to fundamentally transform our economy, our society, our way of life, and the way we consider our environment.

Each goal has its own target date for achievement, which is usually sometime between 2020-2030 (although some goals don’t have a deadline).

Each goal also has its own set of targets (169 in total) that map the journey to final completion. The idea is to make our progress measurable, but also to monitor sustainable development impacts.

Indeed, we are in a hurry: regarding climate change, the consequences of global warming are becoming more and more tangible these years. In this context, more than ever, we need figures and data to analyze the situation and to make the most appropriate and relevant decisions.

🧐 Why did the United Nations set Sustainable Development Goals?

In September of 2015, the United Nations General Assembly officially accepted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The agenda outlined the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were created to ensure that, as the world moves forward, we are “leaving no one behind” in the transition to sustainable development.

But first, what is the United Nations? 🌎

That’s a good question. The United Nations (UN) is a name we hear a lot these days, but many of us take its existence for granted.

The United Nations is a collection of 193 countries, which includes almost every country in the world, excluding Palestine and the Holy See (Vatican City).

It was formed in 1945 (it had only 51 members at the time), after the Second World War, to replace the League of Nations, with the goal of “maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.”

What is the United Nation's General Assembly? 👨👩

The United Nation’s General Assembly is responsible for developing policies and making key decisions.

Between September and December every year, the Assembly meets regularly to talk about and find solutions to global issues. All members of the United Nations are part of the General Assembly, and every member gets an equal vote in decisions.

A "Global Sustainable Development Report" is delivered once every four years.

And what is the 2030 Agenda? 📅

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also known as Agenda 2030, is a 15-year action plan designed to improve world peace, eradicate poverty, defend and advocate for human rights, remove gender inequalities, and cultivate a healthier planet.

The Agenda sets out the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 targets.

Gif of a woman taking note in an agenda

What are the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals? 🎯

SDG 1: No poverty 🪙

Goal: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

The United Nations defines poverty as living below the poverty line of $1.90 USD per person per day (according to 2011 USD purchasing power parity).

When this goal was first set in 2015, 10.2% of working families around the world lived below the poverty line.

Where are we now?

Progress toward Goal 1 has stalled in recent years. Between 2015 and 2017, the percentage of global extreme poverty dropped from 10.1% to 9.3%, but the economic stress of the pandemic put an extra 119-124 million people into poverty.

For the first time in two decades, global extreme poverty actually went up. For now, the United Nations predicts the global poverty rate will sit at 7% by 2030, so, while things will get better than they are now, we won’t achieve our no poverty target.

SDG 2: Zero hunger 🧑🌾

Goal: End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Goal 2 isn’t just about ending hunger. It’s also about helping every person in the world get access to enough healthy food all year round. To do this, we’ll need to build sustainable food production systems and adopt sustainable practices - especially resilient agricultural practices - making sure they’re ethical.

Where are we now?

Like Goal 1, progress on Goal 2 was also hit hard by the pandemic. In 2014, before the SDGs were adopted, the number of undernourished people around the world sat at 607 million. Today, as a result of the pandemic, 720-811 million people experienced hunger in 2020, and a total of 2.37 billion people were unable to eat a healthy, balanced diet regularly.

SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing 🩺

Goal: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

Enabling healthy lives means considering all aspects of health, including preventing and treating illness and disease, increasing health financing to provide health coverage for everyone in the world, supporting female health (sexual, reproductive and child health), and making medication and vaccines safe and affordable for everyone.

Where are we now?

It’s no surprise that COVID-19 also disrupted the advances we’ve made in health and life expectancy. In many regions, there is a shortage of health workers, and 90% of countries are reporting disruptions to their critical health services.

SDG 4: Quality education 🎓

Goal: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

This goal aims to get every child an education, particularly in the elementary years. When the goal was set in 2015, data showed that out of the 59 million primary-school aged out of school children, two out of every five would never go to school.

Where are we now?

After a long period of improvement, pandemic reversed 20 years of progress in education. In 2020, an extra 101 million (9% of children) in grades 1-8 dropped below the minimum reading level. Many countries around the world also don’t have the basic school infrastructure they need to provide children with a proper education, including access to drinking water, electricity, or hand washing facilities.

SDG 5: Gender equality ⚖️

Goal: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Achieving gender equality is a challenge that needs to be targeted from multiple angles. Goal 5 focuses on improving access to education for young girls, preventing child marriages, improving sexual and reproductive health rights, making childbirth safer for women, addressing violence towards women, and advocating for women’s rights through the legal system.

Where are we now?

Even though we’ve made a lot of progress in gender equality, women are still underrepresented in the places that matter, making up only 25.6% of national parliaments and 28.2% of managerial positions. The pandemic placed even heavier loads of domestic and care work on women, led to increased violence against women, and has put an additional 10 million girls at risk of child marriage (on top of the 100 million already predicted to become child brides).

SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation 🚰

Goal: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Water is fundamental to life, and water and sanitation management are fundamental to achieving the SDGs. Without clean water available to every person in the world, we don’t have a thriving planet. With climate change and irresponsible consumption also threatening the availability of water around the world, we need to make sure that the way we use water (and the quality of water that we use) is sustainable and healthy for us and our planet.

Where are we now?

Access to clean water and sanitation is still a luxury in many parts of the world. Due to climate change, natural wetlands are shrinking rapidly. 2.3 billion people live in countries with water stresses, with 26% of the world unable to access safely managed drinking water, 46% unable to access safe sanitation, and 29% lacking basic hygiene.

SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy ⚡️

Goal: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

In the 21st century, energy is a critical part of our daily lives, and it’s one of the reasons many of us have the quality of life we have. And without clean energy technology to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy, most of the other SDGs won’t get off the ground.

Where are we now?

Currently, the energy efficiency is improving by 2% annually, but in order to achieve the targets for this goal, we need to improve by 3% every year until 2030. As it is, 2.6 billion people around the world still use dangerous, energy-intensive cooking systems.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth 📊

Goal: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Consistent economic growth — for all people, in all places — is the only truly sustainable development.

Where are we now?

Although the pandemic resulted in the equivalent of 255 million full-time job losses, the economy is recovering — but for many countries, it may be several years before we see a return to pre-pandemic levels.

SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure 🧱

Goal: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

What do these terms mean? Infrastructure refers to the physical systems that support the operations of communities and businesses. Industrialization fuels our economy, grows employment, and helps improve poverty. Innovation means making advances in technology, which in turn helps drive industry growth and leads to new skill development.

Where are we now?

In 2020, air travel demand dropped by 60%, while manufacturing fell by 6.8%. But later in the year, other products helped return the economy to healthier levels.

SDG 10: Reduced inequalities️

Goal: Reduce inequality within and among countries.

The inequalities in Goal 10 refer to inequalities in income, age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, original, religion, and economic or other status. It also refers to inequalities between countries, like representation, migration and development assistance.

Where are we now?

The number of refugees globally has risen dramatically in the last decade, and the pandemic is expected to reduce income equality for emerging markets and developing countries by 6%.

SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities 🌇

Goal: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Most of the global population lives in cities, and this number keeps growing. Managing cities well, including predicting and resolving housing issues, building sustainable transport systems, developing sustainable and resilient buildings, and planning for inclusive and sustainable urbanization, leads to better innovation, and helps enable sustainable development.

This implies to support least developed countries thanks to financial and technical assistance.

Where are we now?

Only half of the urban population have easy access to public transport, and even now, more than one billion people live in slums. Although 156 countries have already developed national urban policies, only half of these countries have reached the implementation stage.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production 🐾

Goal: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Economies grow when we make and sell things that improve our quality of life. But as we’re seeing now, if the way we make and sell things ends up harming our planet (like over-using natural resources and producing excessive waste and pollution), then the virtuous cycle becomes a vicious one.

Where are we now?

The world’s “material footprint” (the quantity of raw materials we extract to make things) increased by 70% in only 17 years, and progress towards Goal 12 is hindered by enormous amounts of electronic waste (and poor waste management), and fossil fuel subsidies.

SDG 13: Climate action 🚨

Goal: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The biggest threat facing us is a planet made uninhabitable by climate change, and the destructive effects of climate change affect poor and vulnerable communities in particular.

We must fight against environmental degradation.

Where are we now?

Although funding for climate change has increased to $48.7 billion annually, the average global temperature in 2020 was 1.2°C above the pre-industrial baseline, meaning we are nowhere near achieving the Paris Agreement target of no more than 1.5°C by 2050. Although most countries around the world are designing plans and putting them to action, much more needs to be done if we are to significantly slow down or reverse climate change.

SDG 14: Life below water 🐠

Goal: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Oceans and their surroundings are crucial to the health of people (especially the 37% of the world who live along a coastline), the planet, and the economy. Oceans absorb heat and carbon dioxide (thanks, oceans!), they protect coastal regions from floods and erosion, and they contribute to economic growth through tourism, fishing, and more.

Where are we now?

Seven years after adopting the SDGs, our oceans are still facing serious problems with plastic pollution, global warming, eutrophication, acidification, and overfishing. Dead zones (pockets of water that don’t have enough oxygen to support life) are multiplying fast, but only 1.2% of national research budgets go towards ocean study.

SDG 15: Life on land 🦍

Goal: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managed forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and half biodiversity loss.

Protecting the life forms that live on our land won’t just happen by accident. We need to take real measures to protect the species and habitats that are still surviving, restore the ones that need our help, and put the right systems in place so that our on-land ecosystems can stay safe in the future.

Where are we now?

Although we’re making progress in the way we sustainably manage forests, we’ve already lost 100 million hectares of forest in the last two decades, and our advances in protecting key areas of biodiversity has stalled in the last five years.

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions🕊

Goal: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Although most of the world lives in relative peace and has faith in the justice system and other institutions, violence and war is still a normal part of life in many parts of the world.

This doesn’t just put people in danger — it also limits their freedom and prevents them from accessing truthful information. Unless we can achieve peace around the world, we can’t build a sustainable future for everyone.

To ensure equal access to justice is essential.

Where are we now?

The pandemic increased the risk of child exploitation, such as trafficking (1 in 3 victims are children) and child labour (which rose to 160 million in 2020 — the first increase in 20 years).

SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals🤝

Goal: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals are nothing if not ambitious, which means every country in the world will need to work together harmoniously if we are to achieve them. In some cases, this will mean giving more support to smaller and less developed countries. We’ll need to see governments, businesses, the United Nations as a whole, and everyday people come together in the spirit of international cooperation to achieve Agenda 2030’s targets.

🤔 How can companies contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?

There are plenty of ways your company can contribute to the Unites Nations’ global goals. As of 2019, 72% of global companies already include Sustainable Development Goals in their annual reports, and 51% of them have highlighted priority goals.

As a company, you can:

  • Measure and reduce your environmental impact (talk to Greenly about your carbon footprint)
  • Encourage diversity and equality within your own organization
  • Invest in ethical companies
  • Donate to worthy causes

The United Nations has also published a full list of ways your company can contribute to the SDGs.

💡 A final word on Sustainable Development Goals

2030 is approaching fast, and with all the bad news making headlines lately, it can feel like there’s not a whole lot of progress being made on the sustainable development goals.

But in many places, we are seeing progress.

More and more people, companies and governments around the world are doing their bit to take action towards these sustainable development goals, especially when it comes to reducing the environmental impact.

You and your company can make a difference, too. Talk to the team at Greenly. We’ve helped companies all around the world reduce their environmental impact and contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

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