State of the Planet

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Leave No One Behind: The Sustainable Development Goals

Computer lab in Mayange, Rwanda.
Computer lab in Mayange, Rwanda.

Over 150 world leaders are expected to attend the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Summit in New York from Sept. 25-27 to adopt new global sustainable development goals. All 193 member countries of the United Nations have agreed to adopt the 17-goal agenda towards eradicating poverty, protecting the planet and advancing prosperity by 2030.

Sign up and learn more about how to achieve the goals at the International Conference on Sustainable Development, Sept. 23-24, at Columbia University.

The new Sustainable Development Goals aim to further the progress made by the eight Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000 and set to expire at the end of this year, as a roadmap for all countries of the world (though they mainly centered on goals for developing countries). The Millennium Development Goals focused on ending global poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, ensuring gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, promoting environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development. And while the UN touts the Millennium Development Goals as the “most successful anti-poverty push in history,” over one billion people still live in extreme poverty.

Goal #5 Ensuring gender equality. Photo: UNPhoto/Milton Grant
Goal #5 Empower women and girls. Photo: UNPhoto/Milton Grant

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals attempt to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality, and address climate change and its impacts. They are:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full, productive and decent employment for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources
  15. Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies
  17. Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
Goal #13 Combat climate change. Photo: UNPhoto/RickBajornas
Goal #13 Combat climate change. Photo: UNPhoto/RickBajornas

Within the 17 goals are a total of 169 more specific targets. For example, goal #2, to end hunger, includes objectives to end all malnutrition, double the productivity and income of small farmers, ensure sustainable food practices that help maintain ecosystems and promote adaptation to climate change, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, increase investment in rural infrastructure, and eliminate agricultural export subsidies. Goal #13, to combat climate change, includes targets to strengthen resilience and adaptation capacities, integrate climate change strategies into national policies, raise awareness about climate change, help the least developed and small island developing states plan for climate change, and get countries that committed to provide $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change meet their goal.

“Setting goals matters,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute, Columbia University. “Shared global goals are essential for social mobilization, public awareness, accountability of governments, and for mobilizing networks of expertise around complex challenges. The Sustainable Development Goals encompass all key aspects of sustainable development, including fighting poverty and hunger, expanding access to healthcare and education, protecting the environment, and building more peaceful, just and inclusive societies.“

Goal #4 Ensure quality education Photo: UNphoto/MarcoDormino
Goal #4 Ensure quality education Photo: UN photo/Marco Dormino

The Sustainable Development Goals come into effect Jan. 1, 2016. Though they are not legally binding, it is expected that all UN member countries will use them to guide and shape their policies through 2030. The goals were developed by an “open working group” consisting of representatives from 70 countries; the UN also held dozens of national consultations and surveys, including the online My World Survey. In addition, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2012, brought together experts from academia, research institutions, civil society and the private sector to advise on and support the development of the goals. The goals are an acknowledgment that ending poverty and inequality, protecting the planet, promoting sustainable economic growth and social inclusion are all inextricably linked.

“In order to implement the Sustainable Development Goals,” Sachs said, “governments are going to have to reorganize their ministries and departments around a more complex, integrated policy agenda. They will have to work with business, academia, and civil society to shift away from our dangerous business-as-usual path and reorient our economies around higher skills and productivity, greater social inclusion, and urgently needed environmental sustainability.”

Goal #1 End poverty Photo:TimShields
Goal #1 End poverty Photo: Tim Shields

A global partnership to coordinate governments, the private sector, the UN and civil society will help implement the broad-ranging set of goals. Realizing the ambitious agenda will require financial, policy and regulatory strategies on many fronts, but because every country has its own reality, level of development and issues, each will be responsible for establishing its own policies and priorities to implement the sustainable agenda. Countries will be encouraged to set their own spending targets for investments in health, education, water and sanitation, and energy, in alignment with their sustainable strategies.

Meeting the goals, projected to cost $2 to $3 trillion annually, will require substantial backing from public and private financing as well as from philanthropy. High-income countries are being urged to contribute 0.7 percent of their gross national income to help developing countries and 15 to 20 percent to help the least developed countries. Developed countries will be urged to honor their commitments to provide $100 billion to help developing countries with climate change adaptation and mitigation. In addition, tax systems in many countries must be strengthened to increase tax revenue and reduce tax evasion and corruption. Innovative methods will also be encouraged to enhance international private financing.

Goal #3 Ensure healthy lives Photo: AlbertGonzalezFarran,UNAMID
Goal #3 Ensure healthy lives. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Public policies and regulations will need to be strengthened, and the right incentives put in place to promote sustainable practices and entrepreneurship. Developing technology and making technological know-how available to all countries is also critical.

A follow-up process utilizing high quality data and statistics will review the outcomes of the financing and other implementation strategies. This will enable governments to track progress, assess trade-offs and make decisions, as well as foster accountability

A full report of the many strategies needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals was adopted in Addis Ababa in July.

2015 is a critical year for the planet. After the UN summit in September establishes the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December will hopefully put in place a legally binding global agreement on climate. Members of civil society (that means all of us) are encouraged to get involved to influence our leaders in these important global discussions.


To take action, visit action/2015 and Why we are doing this.

Columbia University, host of the Sustainability Development Solutions Network Secretariat, will hold an International Conference on Sustainable Development on Sept. 23-24, featuring Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Earth Institute, and world political and development leaders. The event will be webcast live here.

Young people interested in exploring how they can get involved in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals are invited to a gathering Sept. 22 sponsored by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Youth Initiative. The free event runs from 7-8 p.m. in Roone Arledge Cinema room, Lerner Hall, at Columbia University. Registration is required and you must sign up by Sept. 17 if you do not have a Columbia University ID. Address questions to

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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