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Introducing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

What are the Sustainable Development Goals? What does the word sustainable mean? Learn more in this article by Trinity College lecturers.
A coloured chart of the UN SDGs
© Trinity College Dublin

“We don’t have plan B because there is no planet B.”

– Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General 2007–2016

On the 25th of September 2015, 193 countries came together and agreed to tackle world inequality, poverty, and climate justice. They aimed to achieve this by working together on a sustainable development agenda, putting together 17 goals for sustainable development.

These goals are known as the SDGs, or Sustainable Development Goals.
These 17 goals aimed to cover all areas of our lives, and comprised topics such as no poverty, good health, quality education, gender equality, life on land, and life below water. Altogether, they are made up of 169 targets for sustainable development. Click here to download a quick reference document which includes all of the 17 SDGs.
In this course we will be looking at five SDGs in more detail.

What does the word sustainable mean?

If something is sustainable, it means it is able to be upheld or defended. It means that we can keep something at a certain rate or level. How do we defend a certain level of education for all people? How can we know if we are able to create and maintain gender equality? If we talk about sustaining something like peace, we know we want to uphold or defend it, but how can we really know if we are keeping it at a certain level?
Sustainable development means:
  • Development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
  • Working towards a safe and stable future for people and the planet, now and in the future.
  • Thinking about economic, social and environmental conditions.
These three cannot exist separately from each other. They are harmonious and inter-connected. They have to involve all people and groups in society. Governments can work towards sustainability but so too can businesses, civil society, and all of us as individual citizens.

How can we know if we are acting in a sustainable way?

The SDGs are not legally binding; there is no obligation for countries to be sustainable or to preserve resources for future generations. Instead, countries operate under a system of gentle peer pressure. Countries are expected to take ownership and responsibility for their actions and establish a national framework for achieving the 17 goals.
The goals provide a compass to guide our actions and hold us to account for our commitments.

Some countries have developed their own national indicators on sustainability so that they can monitor progress made on the goals and targets, with two indicators for each target. This brings us to a total of around 300 indicators for all of the 169 targets! It is an enormous task. These indicators are then fed into annual meetings of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. This forum plays a central role in reviewing progress towards the SDGs at the global level.

But the way we think about and monitor sustainability is no easy task and remains complex. Even if we look at our own lives, thinking about sustainability is challenging.

  • Take a look at the 17 SDGs here, and think about your own life for a moment.
  • Which SDG, if achieved, will have the biggest impact on your daily life? Why?

You can read more about the details of SDG targets and indicators here.

© Trinity College Dublin
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