World leaders meet in New York at the end of the month to agree the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals. But what are they and why do they matter?

This blog is part of a series, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, on the SDGs, where leaders and industry experts assess each of the 17 individual goals.

Here are 10 key facts about the SDGs:

  • The idea came from the Rio+20 Summit in 2012 – the largest summit in UN history. Columbia and Guatemala proposed goals to follow on from the Millennium Development Goals, set up in 2000 to halve poverty by 2015. Poverty, as measured by living on less than $1.25 a day, has halved. Setting goals works – in a complex world, organizations and countries can align their agendas and prioritize funding.
  • The new goals are the result of a three-year process involving 83 national surveys engaging over 7 million people, making it the biggest consultation in UN history.
  • Nations finally agreed on a list of 17 goals. Some critics argue that 17 are too many. The goals will not be legally binding, part of a new trend in international policy to prevent endless legal obstructions.

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

  • The 35-page United Nations text outlining the post-2015 development agenda is available here. “This agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity,” it says.
  • From governance experts to climate researchers, the academic community largely supports the goals. The International Council for Science’s independent assessment of the goals gave them a cautious thumbs up.
  • Not everyone agrees. The Lancet described the goals as “fairy tales, dressed in the bureaucratese of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis, and poisoned by the acid of nation-state failure”.
  • This may be true, but it ignores the fact that the goals have been heavily negotiated, so will never be perfect. Instead, they are about values. However, they have broad legitimacy among all parties – which is a big deal.
  • The concern now is how to make people care about the SDGs. If no one notices them, they won’t attract the attention they need to build momentum. This is a very real issue because the media has largely ignored them to date. British film-maker Richard Curtis aims to bring the goals to 7 billion people. Part one of the plan has been to work with the Swedish designer Jakob Trollbäck to rebrand them as the Global Goals and create an army of #goalkeepers.
  • While the Millennium Development Goals were aimed at poorer countries (more or less), the new goals are designed to be universal. This is a monumental shift in thinking about sustainable development from a worldview where rich nations support poorer nations to develop, towards a view where the actions of all, particularly those in wealthy nations, risk destabilizing important parts of Earth’s life-support system – most obviously the climate, the oceans, biodiversity and the forests.
  • So which country is most likely to complete the goals first? Sweden, according to one report. Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland are close behind.

Author: Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: A woman walks through a field with bio-diesel in the north-eastern Greek region of Thrace near the town of Xanthi April 18, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis