07/12/2012 11:39 GMT | Updated 05/02/2013 05:12 GMT

The Sustainable Development Goals: Confronting the Major Challenges of the Twenty-First Century

In physics, the observer effect is when the act of measuring something alters the trajectory of the phenomenon being measured. For the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets for global development agreed by 189 nations to be met by 2015, the observer effect was a very positive one as it focused attention on specific and achievable targets, and did this more effectively than many targets that came before. Without giving away the ending, and depending on how you measure things, we won't meet any of the Goals fully but have made good progress on two of them (poverty and diseases), modest progress on a further two (gender equality and primary education), and little or no progress on four (child mortality, maternal heath, environmental sustainability and on a global partnership for development.

Although the report card is disappointing the challenge was great and the record of global development targets was poor. In this regard, and on the specific issue of keeping the Goals visible for a decade and a half, the MDGs can be judged to have been a great success. If the details of the Goals are unpicked, and we look at some of the 60 indicators used, we see important progress on issues such as income equality, educating girls, childhood diseases, HIV/AIDS, urban slums and reducing debt.

However, these were explicit goals and not just a series of loosely-related aspirations: having committed themselves (almost without exception) to being measured in a particular way, the nations of the world have to assess them at face-value. This means that the Post-2015 process, and the international High Level Panel convened by Ban Ki-Moon which David Cameron co-chairs, needs to focus on how to structure global development targets as much as on what they should include.

It has become almost a cliché to declare each New Year as critical in international development, but 2013 will be decisive in determining a successful framework for what comes after the MDGs. As part of the 'global conversation' the Post-2015 process is supposed to have generated, the Schumacher Institute convened in Bristol a forum of twenty local and national organisations concerned about what follows the MDGs, and how such frameworks will impact city systems such as Bristol. As a group of organisations concerned, generally, with environment and sustainability, we were especially interested in the prospect of a potential successor that came out of the Rio+20 summit this last summer: Sustainable Development Goals.

Any post-2015 framework has to address the long-term problem of promoting development for the poorest while managing critical resource depletion and global environmental change. At present, proposals focus on one or the other, or present an unfocused mash-up of filling in various gaps in the current MDGs. Neither development nor sustainability adequately describes the task ahead, and composite terms such as sustainable development just don't fit the bill either. What we call for is a new social contract between nations and people based on Contraction and Convergence criteria - the mechanism underpinning the Kyoto climate protocol - which structures environmental agreements in such a way as to strike a balance between the needs of rich countries to remain economically stable and of poor countries to develop.

Unfortunately, the Post-2015 process seems to be business as usual; the fundamental question of how you maintain a development model based solely on economic growth in a world of resource constraints rarely comes up. The High Level Panel has charged itself with building a "...broad political consensus on an ambitious yet achievable Post-2015 development agenda around the three dimensions of economic growth, social equality and environmental sustainability" but hasn't yet expressed an opinion about how compatible those things may be. It is tempting to believe that all good things go together, but just a cursory look at development here in the UK shows us that growth, equality and sustainability require difficult, and political, trade-offs.

Unless game-changing technological advances are made in recycling and conservation, we have on conservative estimates forty years of oil left, seventy years of coal, thirty years of gas, twenty years of uranium and twenty-five years of copper (which makes all those wires that carry the electricity). All of those solar panels we will have to get power from in the future? Many of them use Indium, of which there is only 15 years' worth left. Phosphorous, a fundamental component of many industrial processes and of the fertilisers that allow modern agriculture to sustain seven billion people will possibly last 80 years but as this article notes, contraction of supply creates geopolitical shocks decades before critical resources are exhausted.

Political lessons should be learnt from fixing global targets, and these are proving to be just as important as the technical ones. The first is that of consent. The Millennium Declaration gained support from both donors and developing countries, but preceded an unusual (but brief) period of growth in both donors and recipients (and many developing countries have actually continued to grow during the global downturn.) Any new framework will experience very different economic circumstances, altering the balance of power between an unusually weak 'rich' world, and an unusually strong 'poor' world.

The second lesson is to remember how rich countries got rich in the first place. After decades of structural adjustment, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and neo-liberal economic consensus, several (but not all) poor countries are in a position to claim that having taken their economic medicine for so long they are now entitled to claim its rewards. Certain developing countries have significant economic advantages over their richer competitors, most importantly under-exploited agricultural and mineral resources, land and cheap labour. Any attempts to restrain growth in the name of slowing environmental change, or to prevent the same economic practices that allowed rich countries to become rich such as import tariffs, export subsidies and infant industry protection, is likely to meet with stiff resistance from the global south.

What we seek is a new social contract for development: one that pursues economic growth within planetary limits, and asks both rich and poor to make compromises based on their ability to adapt. The MDGs were a high-water mark for global cooperation, and have effectively changed the debate from development being something that only a few can afford to something that is within the reach of many. A poor successor, based on compromise or on over-reach will turn the clock back on global development cooperation.