Back in 2015, the UN adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a set of 17 goals with 169 specific targets to be achieved by 2030. These cover a wide array of topics, including reducing poverty and social inequality and protecting the climate. However, after six years of implementation, progress has been slow, to say the least.
While the SDGs are not the first effort to set global goals, they are still by far the most comprehensive and detailed attempt by the UN to advance sustainable development. Under these targets, governments agreed, by 2030, to end hunger, to increase funding for biodiversity and to halve the proportion of people in poverty, among other ambitious pledges.
But have these global goals influenced the actions of governments and business leaders? Not so much, a new study says.
Researchers went through 3,000 studies investigating the political impacts of the SDGs between 2016 and 2021. Most of the studies are peer-reviewed academic research papers, along with some grey literature.
In order to define the impact on a political system, the authors looked for evidence of three types of political change due to the SDGs. These were discursive changes in political debates, adjustments in regulations, policies or budges, and institutional changes, such as the creation of new departments, or the realignment of existing ones.
“Did any government change its laws to achieve the many intersecting transformations envisioned by the SDGs? Did any ministry in those governments create new programmes for implementing the SDGs? If so, there is little evidence of it. What we found instead are changes in discourse,” Frank Biermann, lead author, wrote in The Conversation. This goes to show that policymakers are aware of these goals — they’re just not following them.
The SDGs, six years on
The researchers found that the political impact of the SDGs has been mostly discursive, for example, by adopting them as a reference point in policy statements. Governments mention the SDGs and even have units to implement them. Companies also refer to them, especially to the targets that are less disruptive to their economic activities.
Overall, there’s limited evidence of the SDGs leading to funding reallocation, the establishment of new laws and programs, institutional realignment, or more stringent policies, the researchers found. Most governments lag behind in implementing the SDGs, selectively acting on the targets that support policies they have already prioritized. So in other words,
While the SDGs seek to address the environmental crisis, the study found little evidence of change in this direction because of the targets. This was also the case with the SDGs’ attempt to address inequalities, with a mismatch between rhetoric and action. Vulnerable people and countries are discursively prioritized but normative changes remain limited.
“The SDGs are a non-legally binding and loose script, purposefully designed to provide much leeway for actors to interpret the goals differently and often according to their interests. Hence, many actors seem to use the SDGs for their own purposes by interpreting them in specific ways or by implementing them selectively,” the researchers wrote.
While the findings aren’t very optimistic, the researchers highlighted there are still eight years to go before the 2030 deadline of the SDG. Governments and corporations already talk differently about sustainability, based on the study’s findings. This can be seen as a positive sign that talk will be followed by action at some point, the researchers argued.