Sustainable industrialisation is included in the new Sustainable Development Goals established by the UN. Growth has destroyed the environment to the extent that it is almost impossible to breathe in Peking.

UN sustainability goals a utopia

Svenska 2015-10-05

At the United Nations summit in late September, the new sustainability goals intended to help create a better world for people and the environment were made official. The goals are great in number and comprehensive in scope. This means that goals such as eradicating poverty disappear in the masses, according to researchers that Curie has spoken to.

The sustainability goals have been negotiated by the UN Member States, organisations and citizens across the world over the past two years. The result is 17 main goals and 169 targets that are considerably broader and less concrete than the Millennium Development Goals that they are replacing.

Among the new goals are those concerning poverty and health, but there are also broad goals relating to the environment, sustainability, economic growth and global justice. One new aspect is that the goals apply to all countries of the world, including Sweden.

“The palette is small in the broadest layer. Everything the world could need is in there. It’s less focused. This also means that there is a risk that goals such as eradicating poverty will disappear among the masses, even if it comes at the top of the list,” says Arne Bigsten, senior professor of development economics and member of the Swedish Research Council’s Committee for Development Research.

His own research looks at poverty, income distribution and growth in Africa, where he has performed studies of various countries, among other things. One of his aims is to understand what limits the expansion of the manufacturing industry, and why this isn’t working as it does in South Korea or Taiwan, for example.

This is an example of how the research can help to achieve the goals. By finding out what it is that prevents the industry from succeeding, for example, we will also know how the development can be turned around.

Growth and environment

The fact that the millennium goal of cutting poverty in half has been achieved has a lot to do with economic development since the 1990s, not least in Asia. More than half a billion Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty – but the environment has paid. Among the new goals is a target concerning sustainable industrialisation.

“Growth is the most important factor for reducing poverty, but we must also manage the environment. Growth has destroyed the environment in China. People can barely breathe in Peking. The Chinese burn a lot of coal, but know that this is not sustainable in the long term,” Arne Bigsten explains.

It is the responsibility of the individual countries – such as China – to act when it comes to how the goals are to be achieved. There is no concrete global plan for how this will be done.

“Success depends on whether the states function. There must be competence and power to implement them, and not corruption,” says Stein Tønnesson, peace researcher at Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), also a member of the Swedish Research Council’s Committee for Development Research.

Peace a prerequisite

He emphasises that few of the goals can be achieved if we do not have peace.

“Prioritisations will be different if there is war. This means we cannot eradicate poverty. Much has improved in the world since the Second World War. This development can continue if it goes well for the world economy and there are no further armed conflicts. It has gone in the wrong direction in recent years,” he says.

One of the Sustainable Development Goals is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”. It is however not as strongly worded as other goals, where verbs such as “end” or “ensure” are used.

“As peace researchers we have not done our job to influence the UN,” explains Stein Tønnesson.

He is currently working on a project which looks at why there has been peace in East Asia since the 1980s, an area which was previously characterised by a great number of serious wars. Knowledge can be of great significance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We can look for the success factors in this scenario and analyse the potential to create the same conditions in other countries and areas.”

A great expense

Responsibility for financing the work is now essentially down to the individual countries.

“The FN has estimated that it will cost several thousand billion dollars to see the goals through to completion. This is much more than the total aid available. We cannot count on the states being able to find such large sums of money. It will be necessary for private finance capital too, especially the major funds, to invest in achieving the goals,” Stein Tønnesson explains.

The researchers that have spoken with Curie emphasise that the goals are set very high. If the main purpose of the Millennium Development Goals was to cut world poverty in half – a target which was rather thoroughly smashed – the goal is now to eradicate poverty in all its forms, throughout the world.

“This will not happen in 15 years. The goal is not realistic,” says Arne Bigsten.

Cecilia Stålsby Lundborg, scientific advisor to the Committee for Development Research and professor of global health at Karolinska Institutet, calls a number of the goals purely utopian. There are for example targets for achieving equality between men and women on all levels in all countries by 2030, safe public services for everyone, everywhere, and access to healthcare for all.

“We have to take the goals as a declaration of intent,” she says.

Research support goals

Research is mentioned in a number of goals. The aim is to support the research and development of vaccines and drugs to combat diseases which affect developing countries, invest in agricultural research, to focus on knowledge development in the field of water and sanitation and to promote scholarships.

“From a scientific viewpoint, the goals are quite sound,” says Cecilia Stålsby Lundborg, who is herself involved in research into various aspects of antimicrobial resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance is not found among the goals, despite the fact that WHO has classed it as one of the largest threats facing mankind. The organisation adopted a global strategy back in 2001 which contained 159 points on how to slow the spread of the problem. But not much happened following this; not until much later.

“Perhaps it’s because there were too many points. I fear that the very same thing will happen with the Sustainable Development Goals. This year, WHO has developed a new global action plan on antimicrobial resistance,” she explains.

“But the goals are in any case expressions of a global drive for a better future for all, and they contribute to supporting international collaboration and solidarity. They highlight issues of global justice and the need for cooperation in order to achieve a higher level of justice,” Arne Bigsten explains.

Caption: Sustainable industrialisation is included in the new Sustainable Development Goals established by the UN. Growth has destroyed the environment to the extent that it is almost impossible to breathe in Peking.

Text: Siv Engelmark
Photo: Zumapress / IBL

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