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Sustainable development goals: Central, but unnoticed

Development Policy

Sustainable development goals: Central, but unnoticed

In September, the United Nations in New York is expected to sign off on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

[Dan McKay/Flickr]

The world’s sustainability goals for 2030 are currently being debated at the United Nations HQ in New York, a key negotiation that will largely decide where development aid will flow over the next 15 years. But in Germany, hardly anyone has paid attention. Der Tagesspiegel reports.

Since 2012, hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world have submitted their opinion on what kind of world they want to live in.

As a result, the new global agenda should not be concocted behind closed doors like the Millennium Development Goals, which were issued by the United Nations in 2000.

At that time, UN bureaucrats pondered over what developing countries should achieve by 2015. It was almost a miracle that the UN General Assembly still accepted the MDGs.

In any case, it should be different now with the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Submissions from citizens were collected and evaluated and played an important role in discussions on a so-called high level panel of eminent persons, including former German President Horst Köhler.

By the fall of last year, the responsible sustainability commission used the results to negotiate the existing 17 goals with 169 accompanying targets. The usual procedure, in which alliances of countries can block one another, was not followed.

Instead, the chairmen of the commission assembled country teams with three actors each. Germany negotiated together France and Switzerland. Until summer, the results of this process will be up for further negotiation in the usual alliances. The European Union currently speaks for Germany and the other 27 member states.

The global agenda until 2030

Although this UN procedure more or less determines where development investments will flow over the next 15 years, negotiations have gone almost completely unnoticed by the public.

The debate deals with important issues, however. The SDGs are no longer simply homework assignments for developing countries. With the SDGs, industrialised and newly industrialising countries not only commit to paying for a world without poverty and reigning in climate change, but also pledge to make the necessary changes to their domestic policies.

The German Institute for Human Rights considered how the target of overcoming poverty could also be implemented in Germany. It criticised the previous sustainability strategy for failing to adequately address this issue.

Meanwhile, the Potsdam-based sustainability institute IASS calculated what would happen if the SDGs were actually implemented in full. The result showed a lack of space worldwide, to fulfil all the requirements for food security, poverty reduction and CO2-free energy that the targets outline.

“That does not add up,” said IASS director Klaus Töpfer.

Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker, who serves on the UN International Resource Panel, said he also believes the contradiction cannot be resolved while emphasis is on continuing growth in the economy and social services.

But in Germany, at least, the debate over the SDGs is not considered very important. At the heart of the question over how the world can continue to progress, is the issue of making a good life possible within the world’s planetary guard rails. The quarrel in Germany’s coal-burning debate is not over anything else.


After the Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, the United Nations and national governments agreed to begin developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs, a set of goals derived from a ‘holistic’, long-term and equitable approach to policy, are intended to apply globally and to take over from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

The SDGs differ from the MDGs in that they go beyond ‘basic’ indicators of human progress, such as poverty reduction and infant mortality, which apply mostly to the developing world, emphasising environmental sustainability and societal equality as global targets that also apply to developed economies.