Opinion: Let's get sustainable development goals right

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under negotiation within the United Nations are set to become the next major driving force for poverty eradication and development.

If countries get behind these new goals -- as they did for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- the world could be in for a few substantial changes.

The MDGs have been credited with halving the world's extreme poverty rate (people with a daily income of less than US$1.25 (RM4.08); more girls are in school; fewer children are dying; and greater resources are being devoted to battling malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.

However, one of the shortfalls of the MDGs was their lack of focus on the environment, and the SDGs are meant to correct this by ensuring that development is also balanced with environmental concerns. The question is: which concerns?

More than 500 global environmental agreements each set numerous goals on everything from conservation and chemicals to air pollution -- far too many to put under one roof.

The Open Working Group on the SDGs started to get underway last month at the United Nations in New York. Made up of 30 member countries and co-chaired by Kenya and Hungary, it will have no easy task trying to strike the right balance.

Under the MDGs, the seventh goal of attaining environmental sustainability was isolated from the rest of the goals. The approach resulted in very little progress as countries saw the goal as environmental and accorded it less priority than others deemed more urgent, such as health, education and poverty.

Unrealised, it seemed, is that the environment underpins all development, providing food, building materials, clothing, fuel, medicinal plants and renewable energy, clean water, carbon storage and more -- fundamental building blocks of our existence. As such, environmental protection targets must be incorporated in boarder goals such as access to clean water and sanitation, food security and good nutrition, and healthy lives.

On the other hand environmental considerations cannot become buried within other goals to the point that they lack sufficient identity and specific focus, leading to a failure to garner sufficient attention, political support and badly needed finance.

The Open Working Group must decide on the right level of integration while ensuring enough attention is paid to environmental issues in their own right -- no easy feat. But an approach they could take is one whereby targets are set within specific broad goals that pinpoint the critical importance of the environment.

For example, a goal on food security could have a target of ensuring the conservation of insects and other animals that carry pollen between crops -- especially fruit and vegetables -- a service estimated to be worth more than US$200 billion per year to the global food economy. Then there could be an overarching "life support" goal with key targets on fundamental environmental issues that underpin human development and well-being such as stopping biodiversity loss, ensuring the integrity of our oceans and addressing land degradation.

These targets could draw on those established  already in multilateral processes such as the overarching Aichi biodiversity targets set in 2010 (and adopted by other major biodiversity conventions such as the Convention on Migratory Species and the Washington Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species), and the land degradation target created under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

These targets are already part of international law but prioritising them in the SDGs will mainstream environmental targets into a wider body of policy making and undoubtedly increase the attention the goal would normally attract in the environmental world.

We live in a complex world far removed from the ecosystems that we rely on for vital services and commodities, and even these lofty UN processes seem far distant from our everyday lives.  But the reality is the majority of the world lives in developing countries and it is the poorest 40 per cent of the world's population that account for only five per cent of global income.  They rely immediately on the environment for their survival. These people know what the MDGs are and how they made a difference in their lives.

The question is whether we can make the same difference with the SDGs and include key goals and targets that may not be so easy for the average man or woman on the street to understand but are fundamental for supporting life on Earth.

Zakri Abdul Hamid (Science Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia) and W. Bradnee Chambers (Executive Secretary, UNEP Convention on Migratory Species)

Last updated on 08 July 2015