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What does sustainable development actually look like?
Sustainable development is a self-explanatory yet unclear topic. At its simplest, sustainable development is development that does not sacrifice the needs of tomorrow for the needs of today. But what does that actually mean?
The global authority on sustainable development is the United Nations, who has laid out specific goals to measure and achieve sustainable development. Adopted in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a suite of 17 goals that can be utilized by businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations to support sustainable development in their local community and globally. These goals recognize the interconnected nature of our global environment and economy and seek to find ways to support both people and nature.
Social goals included within the sustainable development goals include targets focused on social equity. These include some obvious social equity goals such as the eradication of poverty and hunger, access to clean water and sanitation, reduced inequalities, and good health. But there are also other social equity metrics that contribute to sustainable development that may or may not be top of mind when considering social equity. These include gender equality, access to a quality education, affordable and clean energy, partnerships to support the global implementation of the goals and peace, justice and strong institutions.
People frequently mistake sustainability as being anti-economic growth. However, sustainable development recognizes that economic growth need not come at the expense of the environment or vulnerable members of society. With intentional goal setting, it is possible to support both economic growth, sustainable ecosystems, and healthy and equitable human societies. In fact, the sustainable development goals support economic growth. Some goals that are focused on economic growth include sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, and decent work and economic growth.
The sustainable development goals would not be complete without goals to support environmental sustainability. The “life on land” goal includes the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems which includes things like protecting forests, and preventing further loss of biodiversity for land based species. The goal of “Life below water” includes the protection of marine resources and ecosystems. Climate action is another goal that supports environmental sustainability by encouraging the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.
There are many synergies between the goals. Actions that promote affordable and clean energy for example have positive benefits for both people and the environment. The SDGs reveal that sustainable development is development that promotes social equity, human health, and environmental sustainability. The SDGs have been widely adopted on a global scale and there are thousands of organizations working towards making a sustainable future a reality. One of the strengths of the goals is that they can be voluntarily adopted and applied on as “as applicable” basis. This means that a city or organization could choose just one goal to use as a starting point. Other goals can be added as their capacity to focus on sustainable development grows. The voluntary and piecemeal nature of the SDGs makes them a simple yet powerful introduction to sustainable development.