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5 Things You Need To Know About The Sustainable Development Goals

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By Mel Wilson and Elise Bieche

On 25 September 2015, 193 countries including Canada adopted the United Nations' 2030 Development Agenda entitled Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, also sometimes referred to as the Global Goals) and 169 associated targets to be achieved (hopefully) by 2030.

The SDGs are like a great big sustainability buffet. They address everything from poverty, hunger, health care, and education through to protecting marine ecosystems and terrestrial ecosystems, and everything in between. Basically all the components necessary to ensure healthy people, a healthy economy, and a healthy planet in the years ahead.

The SDGs are a refreshing return to the original multifaceted concept of sustainable development. Sustainability is not just about the environment, not just about community investment, or just about the economy. It is not the responsibility of just one industry or one government or one group to solve all the world's problems.

The SDGs are not "first world" or "third world" focused.

The goals are universal and they demonstrate that it is incumbent upon all sectors, all levels of government, and all citizens and civil society actors to root themselves in the SDGs and continuous improvement. It's a shared collective responsibility to take action to ensure a sustainable world for future generations.

Because the SDGs are so expansive, we decided to summarize what we believe are the key highlights of this big smorgasbord of goals, targets, and accompanying narratives. Obviously, boiling down such an ambitious initiative to a handful of highlights is in itself an ambitious initiative, so there is no doubt we missed some things. But -- drum roll please -- here are what we believe are the top five highlights:

1. The goals are intended to be universal (well, global at least)

The SDGs are designed to be relevant to each country, each industry, and all of civil society. The SDGs are not "first world" or "third world" focused. They are designed to find solutions to issues that cross borders, societies, cultures, and classes. This is why it took three years for the working groups to arrive at the SDGs. Many viewpoints and voices from around the world were sought and considered.

2. All the goals are created equal.

This allows us to take the conversation of sustainability and resiliency back to its original foundation where no single goal is more important than any other goal. If you have been following the media in recent years, much of the dialogue about sustainability has been dominated by a single issue: climate change. Don't get me wrong: climate change is very important and its impacts will be truly global. But poverty, health care, education and other issues are just as immediate and just as important.

Now you are probably going to say "but climate change has to be addressed or those other issues could worsen." There is merit in that, but you can equally argue that one of the best ways to address climate change is through ensuring that healthy, educated societies can access clean and affordable technologies. The platform for improving our planet is bigger than keeping the temperature from rising 2°C. This is very important, but it is still just one of many steps in the right direction.

The SDGs can serve as the common magnetic north for all organizations that operate with a moral compass.

3. The SDGs aren't just qualitative goals; there are also many quantitative targets.

Remember that old cliche "what gets measured gets managed"? There is a lot of truth to that saying. And the good news is that each SDG comes with its own matching set of quantitative targets! We can use these to measure and manage our progress. It is a march to 2030 made up of many steps, with many targets, KPIs and other milestone dates along the way.

4. The SDGs aren't just aspirational, they are achievable.

I suspect that if we took a deep dive into many current government policies and programs, NGO mandates, and many corporate Sustainability/CSR reports we would find that many organizations are already working on goals and targets very similar to the SDGs. I believe if we did a thorough gap analysis it would show that the SDGs require more of a change in the lens used to view our activities rather than a wholesale change in how we operate.

5. Collaboration is the key to success.

In fact, collaboration is so important that the 17th goal is "Partnerships for the Goals." Some of the best work I have been involved with has been at the table with industry, regulators and NGOs, bringing together diverse opinions driving towards sustainable solutions. It took a bit longer, and sometimes it was frustrating, but the results were far better quality than what would have been produced by one group working alone.

The SDGs can serve as the common magnetic north for all organizations that operate with a moral compass. They also provide a common language and vocabulary so we can have more meaningful and efficient communication re the key issues and our progress.

So what does this all mean? Well, the SDGs gives us thoughtfully considered global goals and targets to aim for. It is up to us to start working towards them. And we need to do this not only for ourselves, but also for the future generations that will come after us. We owe it to them.

And if Canada, with its abundant resources, educated citizens, and strong societal values doesn't show leadership on the SDGs, how can we expect other countries to do so?

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