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Sustainable Development Goals - Utopian Fantasy or Economic No-brainer?

10/08/2015 16:04 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

Last week, following months of painstaking negotiations that may have passed many readers by, UN negotiators in New York completed their work to finalise the text of 'Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development', setting out the final text of 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The vision is that by agreeing to work together to promote forms of economic development that don't wreck the planet, the nations of the world can deliver better lives in a way that works for everyone, for the long term. For a UN document, this is an encouragingly inspirational text, and having been at some of the negotiations in NYC, I believe that there is widespread enthusiasm to make it a reality.

Not surprisingly, the breadth of this agenda has attracted some ridicule, with The Economist, for one, critiquing the entire enterprise as something of a utopian fantasy, too ambitious to stand any chance of implementation. But if we look a little closer, there is every reason to challenge the cynicism. Let's recall that although the Millennium Development Goals have not been fully achieved, there has been more progress in eradicating extreme poverty around the world than many expected at the time of their adoption 15 years ago. The challenge now is building a fair and sustainable global economy, without degrading the planet's resources on which we all rely: this could be achieved with the requisite political will and moral courage.

Among the government representatives that I talked to, many recognise that our social and economic aims are, more than ever, dependent on intelligent and sensitive management of the world's natural resources. This might seem obvious, but in terms of international economics, it's a great leap forward. And it is encouraging that when the goals are confirmed at the post-2015 summit in September, environmental commitments will be at the heart of the framework. But September should not be about simply rubber-stamping the agreed goals. It's a chance for countries, including the UK, to share their plans to move forward and implement them.

Next step: implementation

Organisations like WWF are part of the solution. We are already working to bring governments, communities and the private sector together to do business in new and sustainable ways - and the results are clear. They provide ample evidence to suggest that working towards a sustainable way of development, i.e. implementing the SDGs, can be the catalyst for a flourishing of enterprise that will benefit us all.

In Tanzania, for example, unsustainable fishing practices and changes in the weather have led fish stocks to plummet. Given that fish accounts for more than 50% of people's animal protein, this is a serious socio-environmental issue. To tackle this, WWF are establishing collaborative arrangements between communities and the government to co-manage freshwater and marine fishing grounds. These give local people the power to make decisions about the things that matter most to them: securing food, preserving the local environment, protecting livelihoods. As a result, some fishers have increased their catches by 130%.

Governments could replicate such a model around the world, helping make the SDGs to end poverty (goal 1) and hunger (goal 2) and to sustainably use our oceans' resources (goal 14) a reality.

All actors need to contribute

Likewise, private sector companies can promote more sustainable global consumption and production patterns (goal 12), reducing the ecological footprint of high and middle-income countries. In India WWF works with M&S to support Indian cotton farmers in their supply chain to adopt responsible farming techniques and develop ways of producing that use less water and fewer pesticides. M&S's goal is for 50% of their cotton to come from more sustainable sources by 2020. On average the farmers have reduced water consumption by 16% (goal 6), pesticide use by 18% and chemical fertiliser use by 22% (goals 3 and 12). By doing so, M&S is supporting the sustainable growth of local economies (goal 8) and building more resilient production systems (goal 2), which will protect consumers from increasing commodity prices in the long term.

WWF is working with Kingfisher, Pearson, Argos and Sainsbury's to turn the global marketplace into a positive force to save the world's most valuable and threatened forests (goal 15). This Global Forest & Trade Network links over 250 companies as well as NGOs and entrepreneurs in more than 30 countries around the world to stimulate new markets for environmentally responsible forest products and in turn, increasing the economic incentives for responsible forest management. This is helping independent and credible certification of millions of acres of forest, ensuring that they are well managed and that their products come from legal and sustainable timber harvests.

Many more businesses are ready to step up. Just last month 80 UK firms including BT, Cisco, E.on, John Lewis Partnership, SSE, and Willmott Dixon joined with WWF to call on the UK Government to take decisive action to combat climate change (goal 13) and build a low-carbon economy (goals 7 & 8). From construction and energy to retail, the best British enterprises are calling for Government to establish a long-term framework for investment in the low-carbon economy, giving industry much-needed clarity over what is expected in terms of low-carbon development. And recognising the importance of clean, resilient and reliable freshwater sources for communities, ecosystems and business, companies including HSBC and Coca Cola have signed up to a joint statement supporting goal 6 on water and sanitation.

In some cases, the change is driven not by companies or governments, but by forward-looking local communities. In Nepal, WWF backs a programme to introduce effective biogas stoves to homes as an alternative to wood-burning - not only preventing forest degradation but also benefitting households in terms of time, money and health. The hours people in villages like Madhuban once spent in the forest collecting fuel-wood every day is now used for income generating activities like vegetable growing (goals 1 & 8). And now that cooking is quicker and more efficient, more women are enrolling in education programmes (goals 4 & 5). The new biogas units have also reduced the hazardous smoke that once permeated homes (goal 3), in addition to cutting an estimated four metric tonnes of carbon emissions per year (goal 13).

An agenda for all countries, including the UK

The SDGs are not just an agenda for the poor. Developed countries will need to tackle unsustainable consumption and production and contribute their fair share to tackling climate change. That means all of us taking responsibility. Food production and distribution, along with deforestation and land-use change for agriculture, are responsible for 30% of the UK's CO2 emissions. It is clear that we must change the way we produce food - and the way we consume it. WWF is showing consumers [link to Livewell] how they can make a difference through simple changes to their diet and make choices that are healthy for both people and planet (goals 2, 3 & 12).

Assembling and agreeing a list of goals is far from the most exciting part of the process - and without strong implementation plans at national level, the goals will of course be ineffective. In the UK, this means a strong 25-year plan to protect nature, and a clear framework for investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency for starters. But if businesses and governments, including our own, do begin to commit themselves to a different way of thinking and doing business, we could be at the beginning of a period of real, radical and inspiring change.