Why sustainable development goals can survive a change in government

Policies and administrations change — the UN’s 17 global goals help keep nations focused on the priorities that shouldn’t
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on April 20, 2018
The UN’s 17 sustainable development goals target issues such as poverty, hunger, and climate change. (Ron Poling/CP)

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​In the span of six months, Ontario has gone from having a solid cap-and-trade plan to facing an election outcome that may end up spelling the end of all carbon pricing and pitting the province against the federal government on climate change.

Politics is unpredictable — which is why the United Nations is leading a global effort to achieve a shared set of critical goals.

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals — which focus on issues such as poverty, hunger, and climate change — unite global leaders in a common venture. Adopted in 2015 by the UN member states, they provide direction for the world’s governments and non-profit organizations.

Most of the goals would be difficult for any government to take issue with. Number eight on the list, for example, is Decent Work and Economic Growth: “The goal is to achieve full and productive employment, and decent work, for all women and men by 2030,” it reads.

The list builds on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which are geared to alleviating extreme poverty around the world from 2000 to 2015.

The goals don’t change: they’re fixed targets that policymakers are working to achieve by 2030. In that time, administrations of various political stripes will come and go — and proponents of the SDGs say that’s a good thing.

“Political figures can get caught up in short-term political cycles and miss long-term success,” says John McArthur, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We need, I think, our political cycles to also be informed by longer-term measures of progress.”

“The SDGs were affirmed under the Harper government, and now they're being pursued under the Trudeau government. The Harper government signed on in September 2015, and now in the fall of 2017, the new prime minister was at the general assembly saying these goals are just as important to us at home as they are abroad.”

From one administration to the next, the goals are intended to provide continuity and direction — serving as what Margaret Biggs, Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, and McArthur have referred to as a “North Star.”

“While it might look like it's a disadvantage, or awkward, given that governments come and go … one of the virtues of having goals that all countries at one point in time agree to, it means that those goals endure beyond political cycles,” says Biggs.

Of course, U.S. President Donald Trump did famously pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, which is embedded in the climate goals of the SDGs.

“Some governments might not agree. The most obvious one is around climate change, where there may be some governments that don't agree,” says Biggs. “I think that, over time, the vast push of effort around the world will drive most governments in Canada and elsewhere to get on board. There may be a blip here and there, but I think over time they will endure, and they will be what the world is going to be focused on.”

The federal government recently launched a voluntary national review of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, the results of which will be presented in July 2018.

Tune in to The Agenda With Steve Paikin at 8 p.m. on Monday, April 23, through Wednesday, April 25, for a series of episodes about the Sustainable Development Goals and the issues that will be addressed at the Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s Generation SDG Summit. Or stream the episodes on Twitter and Facebook.

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