The History of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

We all heard about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2030 Agenda and their importance.

How much do we know about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their origins?

There is no doubt that we need to reset the direction of the world economy, from one of widening inequalities, social exclusion, and massive environmental threats to the course of sustainable development.

A path for the world in which prosperity is shared, societies are inclusive, and the environment is kept safe.

To do so, in September 2015, all member states of the United Nations have agreed to adopt “Transforming the World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

It is a universal action plan for global cooperation on sustainable development for the period 2015 to 2030.

To leave no one behind, 2030 Agenda has defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 targets.

Clearly that was a complex task, which did not happen over a short time. Though these Global Goals have been adopted in 2015, one can say their history goes back several decades. A quick review of some important events will help us to have a better understanding of how the SDGs are raised.

Sustainable development goals (SDG)
Sustainable development goals (SDG)

1962, The Silent Spring

In 1962, Rachel Carson, an American biologist, with her book “Silent Spring” alerted the world to the environmental impact of chemical pesticides and inspired the global environmental movement. Silent Spring is widely considered as the most important environmental book of the 20th century.

Seven years later, in January 1969, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, released over 15 million liters of oil onto the California coast killing thousands of animals.

This disaster, which was the worst oil spill until that time, captured global attention. It became another alarm for the world to consider humans’ responsibility for conserving the environment. This led to the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), where 20 million people got together to celebrate the Planet.

1972, The Limits to growth

The event brought the environmental issues –missing from media and policy– on the table and environmentalists started to establish “Green” political movements in the form of activist non governmental organizations and environmentalist political parties.

Consequently, in 1972, the “Conference on the Human Environment” took place in Stockholm. It was the first conference of the UN member states that recognized that the economy on one side and the environment, on the other side, were on a collision course. The increasing weight of human activity on nature was leading to environmental risks on an unprecedented magnitude scale.

In the same year, the Club of Rome with the collaboration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published “The Limits to Growth” that shocked the world. It was the first study to question the viability of continued growth in the human ecological footprint and has predicted our civilization would probably collapse before 2100.

From International organizations to “normal” People

Since more people were acknowledging environmental treats, the contemporary green movement focused on promoting environmental and social values as well as changing government policy.

Thousands of people around the world joined the movement and began demanding changes in policies by protesting especially against the development of nuclear power. Milestones were the catastrophic accidents at Three Mile Island followed by the one in Chernobyl and against deforestation in Amazon and Indonesia.

1983, The Brundtland Commission

Due to the attention to the unsustainable economic growth, UN established the “Brundtland Commission” in 1983, under the leadership of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.

“Our Common Future” the report of this commission, published in 1987, defined the term “Sustainable development”.

So what is by definition a “Sustainable Development”?

It is a development that meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

1992, The Earth Summit

In 1992, the concept of Sustainable Development was adopted as a shared global concept during the “Earth Summit” .

However, in 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, when the UN member states came together in the “Rio +20 conference”, there was a grim realization that the concept of sustainable development has not been taken hold nor implemented.

Warned by scientists and researchers, the other urgent reality was that the world can’t move forward continuing to have unsustainable growth.

So, they have decided to choose the idea of goal-based development to help orient the behavior of governments, businesses, and civil society in a shared direction.

“By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.”

President John F. Kennedy – 1963

2015, The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came to life

At the time of the “Rio+20 conference”, the UN states were operating in the context of another set of goals, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Therefore, the idea caught on that the MDG era would be followed by a Sustainable Development Goal or SDGs era starting from 2015 to 2030. The negotiation has started about what these SDGs should be.

The SDGs were created through the largest ever participatory process undertaken by the UN.
10 million people from different parts of the globe expressed their views in the consultation process to help shape the 2030 Agenda.

The initial list of about 300 proposed goals over three years was negotiated, prioritized, aggregated objectives and by the middle of 2015 came to 17 goals.

High priority goals for prosperity, people, planet, economic, social and environmental objectives.

Few months before the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015 , Pope Francis in his second encyclical, “Laudato si” declared that climate change is one of the principal challenges facing humanity.

Sustainable development goals (sdg)
Sustainable development goals (sdg)

The Pope called for a “new dialogue” and invited all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”

Finally, on September 25th, 2015 the member states, at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, have adopted those 17 goals, embedded in the overall commitment to 2030 Agenda.

The SDGs became the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They are often called a radical plan for humanity and a new way of ‘doing’ development.

2015, The “Paris Climate Agreement”

Few weeks after UN Summit in Paris, another international agreement was reached to stop global warming and human-induced climate change. The “Paris Climate Agreement” has an indivisible bound with the 2030 Agenda.

These two key agreements as a whole unit are an overarching framework of global cooperation for sustainable development.

We have the technology and the necessary resources to achieve both the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. What we need most to reach them is active collaboration.

Our task is to recognize the urgent, share the direction, and do our best to achieve these goals.
We are at the beginning of the “Decade of Action” (2020-2030), to reach the goals everyone needs to do their part: governments, private sector, civil society.

We are all in this together!

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