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2015 was a significant year for sustainability. It was the year that countries around the globe agreed a new sustainable development agenda and backed a global agreement on climate change.
In September 2015 more than 150 world leaders adopted the UN backed 2030 agenda for sustainable development including a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). These goals seek to stimulate action over the next fifteen years and have been designed as an integrated package balancing economic, social and environmental development.
The SDGs build on the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which ended in 2015. However there are important differences. The MDG targets focused mainly on addressing poverty through action in developing economies, with support from more developed economies. The new SDGs are more about the challenges that all countries face in achieving sustainable development and ensuring the wellbeing of current and future generations. All countries are encouraged to take action on environmental, social and economic issues.
The SDGs go further and wider than the MDGs, seeking the elimination of poverty rather than a reduction, and setting out demanding targets on health, education and gender equality. The new goals also include: action on climate change, sustainable communities, responsible consumption and strengthening institutions.
An innovative related initiative is the UN Development Programme’s partnership with ‘Project Everyone’ initiated by Richard Curtis, filmmaker and founder of Comic Relief. This project’s ambition is to share the SDGs (aka ‘global goals’) with the 7 billion plus people on the planet. The reach of this project to date is impressive and you can find out more at Project Everyone and Global Goals.
In December 2015, 195 countries participating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Paris, adopted an agreement to act on climate change. With so many countries opting to back it, it will represent the first ever universal, legally binding climate action agreement.
Governments agreed to a long term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Linked to this is recognition that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible, followed by rapid reductions.
There was also agreement to: ensure transparency (tracking and reporting on progress), strengthen societies' ability to deal with the impacts of climate change, improve co-operation between countries and support developing countries in adapting and minimising the adverse effects of climate change.
The agreement comes into force once 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of global emissions, have ratified it. The deadline for achieving this is 2020. Ratifying countries will be required to set their own targets for reducing emissions. As such, the target and time scale is voluntary and in the hands of each country to decide.
Even though this is a voluntary agreement it is a significant achievement that so many countries have recognised both the issue of climate change and the need for all countries to take action to reduce emissions globally.
The next few years may prove to be a pivotal for sustainable development. The December Paris climate change conference was a success in acting on the SDGs agreed in September. Much now depends on how governments, their partners and stakeholders build on these achievements and utilise the global sustainable development goals to inform and drive further changes in long term strategic planning and decision making.
UN Sustainable development goals
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change