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sustainable development goals – what do they mean for the environment?


At the beginning of 2016 the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially took effect. Building on the previous Millennium Development Goals, the new goals are even more ambitious in aiming to end all forms of poverty. They call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income, to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. To end poverty there must be strategies for economic growth, education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while simultaneously tackling climate change and protecting the global environment. 

The SDGs are wide-ranging and interconnected. Goals 1-6 cover poverty, hunger and food security, health, education, gender and women’s empowerment, water and sanitation. Goals 7-12 deal with energy, economic growth, infrastructure and industrialisation, inequality, cities, sustainable consumption and production. Goals 13-17 cover climate change, oceans, biodiversity, forests and desertification, peace and justice, and partnerships. They aim to achieve environmental sustainability through economic and other strategies that respect human rights, peace and justice.  

Some goals are more obviously connected to environmental issues, even while encompassing other matters. Goal 2, for example aims to: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. This goal challenges us to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food. 

Our earth can provide nutritious food for all but only if we make major changes in our global food and agriculture systems. Our agriculture, forestry and fisheries need to be re-organised to create reasonable incomes, support people-centred rural development and protect the environment. 

Currently, our soils, freshwater, oceans, forests and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded. Since the 1900s, around 75 per cent of crop diversity has been lost. In addition, climate change is putting pressure on the resources we depend on, increasing the risk of droughts, cyclones and floods. In this context, many small farmers can no longer make an income and are forced to migrate to cities in search of opportunities. 

However, through Investing in smallholder women and men, we can increase food security and nutrition for the poorest, and increase food production for local and global markets. Greater agricultural biodiversity provides more nutritious diets, enhanced livelihoods for farming communities and more resilient and sustainable farming systems. Further, if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.
Goal 6 aims to: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices and educational opportunities for poor families across the world. Drought afflicts some of the world’s poorest countries, bringing hunger and malnutrition. There is sufficient fresh water on the planet to achieve clean, accessible water for all, but bad economics and poor infrastructure mean that every year millions of people, particularly children, die from diseases associated with inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. 

Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all 

Energy is the main contributor to climate change, accounting for around sixty per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the carbon intensity of energy is a key objective in long-term climate goals. However at present, one in five people lacks access to electricity, and 3 billion people rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating. 

Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable 

Half of the world’s population lives in cities today. 828 million people live in slums and the number keeps rising. Rapid urbanisation is exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment and public health. But the high density of cities can bring efficiency gains and technological innovation while reducing resource and energy consumption. Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social development and much more. At their best, cities enable people to advance socially and economically. 

Common urban challenges include congestion, lack of funds to provide basic services, a shortage of adequate housing and declining infrastructure. The challenge is to maintain cities in a way that continues to create jobs and prosperity while not straining land and resources, improving resource use and reducing pollution and poverty. With the political will, we can create cities of opportunities for all, with access to basic services, energy, housing, transportation and more. 

Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts 
Climate change is now affecting every country on every continent. It is already disrupting national economies and affecting people, communities and countries and will do so even more in the future. 

People are experiencing the significant impacts of climate change, which include changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are now at their highest levels in history. Without action, the world’s average surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century and is likely to surpass 3 degrees Celsius this century—with some areas of the world expected to warm even more. The poorest and most vulnerable people are being affected the most. 

There are now affordable solutions available to enable countries to develop cleaner, more resilient economies. The pace of change is quickening as more people are turning to renewable energy and a range of other measures that will reduce emissions and increase adaptation efforts. But climate change is a global challenge that does not respect national borders. It is an issue that requires coordinated solutions and cooperation at the international level and strategies to help developing countries move toward a low-carbon economy. 

Goal 15: Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss 

Forests cover thirty per cent of the Earth’s surface and as well as providing food security and shelter, they are key to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and the homes of indigenous populations. However, thirteen million hectares of forests are being lost every year while the persistent degradation of drylands has led to the desertification of 3.6 billion hectares. 

Deforestation and desertification – caused by human activities and climate change – pose major challenges to sustainable development and have affected the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the fight against poverty. Greater efforts are needed to manage forests and combat desertification. 

Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources 
Our rainwater, drinking water, weather, climate, coastlines, much of our food, and even the oxygen in the air we breathe, are all ultimately provided and regulated by the sea. Forty per cent of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats. Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. It is obvious that careful management of the oceans is vital for a sustainable future. 

Goal 17: Revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development 
To deliver sustainable development we need partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. These need to be built at all levels - global, regional, national and local and should place people and the planet at the centre of all strategies. 
Private resources need to be mobilised for investment in sustainable energy, infrastructure and transport. The public sector will need to set a clear direction, while also developing and strengthening review and monitoring frameworks, and regulative structures. 

What can ICJW and its affiliates do to support the SDGs and help build a fairer and healthier world? 

As NGOs ICJW and its affiliate organisations certainly have a role as a part of civil society to hold governments and big business to account. Through social media and internet, grassroots groups have educated and mobiilsed public opinion and brought about improvements for social justice and a cleaner planet. By joining with others we magnify our influence. 

The UN emphasises the importance of each of us taking action. ICJW has produced three toolkits on becoming environmentally responsible – we all need to refer to these and make changes to reduce our carbon footprint. We also exercise power through the money we invest. We are morally responsible for what our money does. We need to withdraw our money from funds that invest in dirty energy and re-invest into funds that support renewable energy. 

Most of us live in urban environments, and Goal 11 is particularly relevant to us. We can become more environmentally responsible by becoming involved in initiatives to green our cities, and improve access to basic services, clean energy, housing and transportation. As consumers we can become more conscious of how our food and other goods are produced, and support local, smallholder farmers who use sustainable farming methods – better for our health and better for the environment. 

If each of us makes a commitment to these actions, we support the SDGs and contribute to a fairer, healthier world.