Compared to their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a step in the right direction: With their global validity, they acknowledge that change not only needs to happen in poor countries, but in rich countries too, see for example Goals 11-15 (Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life below Water and Life on Land). In all these areas the early industrialised countries of the Global North have a lot of homework to do to bring their lifestyles and economies within the planetary boundaries.

However, considering the large ecological debts of the Global North and the related structural inequalities of power and wealth, it can be doubted that a one-fits-all solution such as the SDGs helps bridge the existing extreme inequalities between countries. They don’t include enough  political commitments to acknowledge and further reduce these inequalities.

If the countries of the South were truly to achieve Goals 1-9 (No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry Innovation and Infrastructure), the physical reality of our planet would require all early industrialized countries to significantly cut back their consumption of natural resources, their Greenhouse Gas emissions and other types of waste at an unprecedented pace. Some critics even go as far as saying: “Forget ‘developing’ poor countries, it’s time to ‘de-develop’ rich countries”. In addition to the obligation for Northern countries to clean up their own act, cash transfer to the South, be it called development assistance or not, is an acknowledged means to pay back some of the ecological debts. It seems, however, that in total more money flows from developing countries to the West than the other way round. Anthropologist Jason Hickel takes the following conclusion from this.

“Poor countries don’t need charity. They need justice. And justice is not difficult to deliver. We could write off the excess debts of poor countries, freeing them up to spend their money on development instead of interest payments on old loans; we could close down the secrecy jurisdictions, and slap penalties on bankers and accountants who facilitate illicit outflows; and we could impose a global minimum tax on corporate income to eliminate the incentive for corporations to secretly shift their money around the world.”

What if some SDGs are incompatible with others?

Such measures or other political responses to structural inequalities hardly play any role in relation to the SDGs, although they might even be a precondition for their implementation. Another open question: what if, on top of this, some of the SDGs literally turned out to be incompatible with others? What if for example Goal 8 and 9 (Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) on a global scale were in direct opposition to the aforementioned Goals 11-15?. Although heatedly discussed in social-ecological niches, the underlying assumptions of the SDGs, namely that they go well hand in hand on a global scale, were never verified or at least broadly discussed.

While the SDGs can definitely be helpful to measure progress in the right direction, they proceed from the wrong end: instead of starting from examining what’s needed to put human action back on a sustainable track within the non-negotiable planetary boundaries in an equitable way, they start from a wish-list of human needs and wants without a proper reality-check. It is likely that the lacking will to address unquestioned assumptions – like the compatibility of the SDGs with our current growth-based economic system – is the reason for the large discrepancy between words and action in global policy, not only in view of the SDGs

Take the Paris Agreement on Climate Change for example, in which almost all states of the world have committed to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degree. Nice words, but action on the ground would be much nicer: Despite international agreements on climate action since 25 years, global emissions are still on the rise.

It is all about priorities

The same discrepancy between words and actions seems to be the case with the SDGs. A recent study on SDG implementation concludes: “The world is off-track in terms of achieving sustainable development and fundamental policy changes are necessary to unleash the transformative potential of the SDGs. (…) three years after its adoption, most governments have failed to turn the vision of the 2030 Agenda into real policies. Even worse, policies in a growing number of countries are moving in the opposite direction, seriously undermining the spirit and the goals of the 2030 Agenda.”

It is all about priorities. If all governments would take the SDGs seriously and treated them as a top priority, they would need to question everything they take for granted – including our economy and the ways we organise societies. And, in view of the likely contradiction between some SDGs and others: it is not a question of either-or. It is a question of the right balance and distribution – another blind spot that would require much more attention. Adopting sufficiency approaches– besides efficiency and consistency– would be a good start. Instead of subscribing to the expansive logic of consumer lifestyles, sufficiency approaches raise questions of “enoughness” and limits: up to which level could and should people and societies in the North cut down unsustainable consumption habits in order to free up resources for those who have far less than enough?

Vist “Tracking the SDGs in Research and Practice” on the EADI Webpage.