Kpalang village, Ghana (Image: Jon Warren/World Vision, 2006)

Sustainable Development Goals focus on food, water, and energy

Taking steps towards sustainability

Sustainable development is vital for the future of humanity and our planet, and at the forefront of both the scientific and political debate is the concept of Sustainable Development Goals. (9:10)

  • 9 November 2012

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Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I’m Glen Paul.  Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, and it’s often broken down into three components – environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and socio-political sustainability.

When the Rio+20 Earth Summit wound up in June of this year, political leaders from across the globe came away with a set of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short, which basically focus on food, water, and energy.  To explore these goals, CSIRO’s Doctor Mark Stafford-Smith formed part of a discussion panel for the Australian Council for International Development’s 2012 Council recently held in Canberra.

To find out more I’ve got Mark on the phone.  Tell me, how much of the discussion was based on the Sustainable Development Goals that came from Rio+20, and what was the overall reaction towards them?

Dr. Stafford Smith: Well the Rio+20 meeting actually in the end didn’t commit absolutely to a particular set of Sustainable Development Goals, they committed somewhat vaguely to definitely undertaking a development process for Sustainable Development Goals, which sort of puts it a bit at arm’s length from finalising some goals.  So we’re actually in quite a challenging period I think now of trying to work out what the goals should be, and how they can most effectively be brought together to deliver something useful for the planet.

There are some quite serious politics about it, so part of the concern was that the Millennium Development Goals, the goals that we’re currently operating under at that UN level, that they’re far from complete, they’ve driven some really good valuable changes with pulling people out of poverty, and improving health and education standards in some places, but of course some of them haven’t worked so well, and even the ones which have worked quite well, we still haven’t by any means completed them.

So some countries are really concerned that we’re not paying attention to those Millennium Development Goals, so that was one reason why people weren’t too comfortable about signing on to a new set of Sustainable Development Goals in Rio.  The second one is that the Sustainable Development Goals, as you said in your introduction, I mean they’re really aimed at sustainable development, and one aspect of sustainable development that we’ve come to understand much better in the last decade or so is that you can’t just do that at individual country’s level, we need to have global sustainability as well.

And so Sustainable Development Goals have to be universal, they have to be applied to all countries, and they have to add up to something, which means we’re not stuffing up the whole globe.  And of course there is some resistance from some developed nations to being measured in that sort of way – they’re sort of happy enough to measure whether there’s progress in developing nations, but not so keen to have their own record looked at too closely.

So all of those things mean that there are a fair bit of politics around establishing a set of Sustainable Development Goals which might take over from the MDGs in some fashion after 2015, and which undoubtedly need to make sure they still continue to deliver the benefits that the MDGs have been doing.

Glen Paul: How do you approach that, because there is this argument that political manoeuvring trumps scientific evidence – how was that approached in the discussion?

Dr. Stafford Smith: Well I think the discussion had a pretty useful approach to this, in the sense of saying, you know, it is genuinely important that we continue to meet the dominantly social goals that are covered in the MDGs, but equally it would be pretty disastrous if we missed this critical opportunity to think about something which also delivers the sustainability of the planet, or at least tries to.

And so I think a fair bit of the discussion really focused on asking how can we construct a new set of goals which encompass the MDGs, which therefore the countries that are concerned to see them completed are comfortable with, and can sign off on, but which nonetheless push us in the direction of global sustainability as well, the right sort of measures for that, without trying to measure every single thing, because there’s also significant issues around funding all of this, but at least perhaps create a new structure in which some of the existing MDGs sit, but which starts to bring in global sustainability issues.  And those sorts of issues are the sorts of trade-offs between the three key aspects of sustainable development, so really trying to understand how environmental issues, economic issues, and social issues, can be better integrated, looking for goals which explicitly do that.

And there’s some really interesting aspects of this, I think.  You know there are some ways in which those elements of sustainability can be quite synergistic, so for example the classic one is that if we actually improve people’s cooking fuels, give them energy to be able not to have to harvest wood or cow dung, you can do all sorts of things simultaneously – you can improve the atmosphere; reduce health problems that come from particulates in people’s cooking areas; you can reduce the amount of time that people have to spend collecting fuel, so that means women and children can actually get education and other opportunities; you can reduce the total release of CO2 into the atmosphere anyway if you’ve got good energy sources to replace these; you can reduce the impacts on local biodiversity if you’re not cutting down lots of trees, and so on.

So in fact you can get some real synergistic effects by thinking about these things together, just as you can also try and deal with what are genuine trade-offs.  So we know that if everyone on the globe had the GDP of us here in Australia, we would be using resources at a rate which is completely untenable, we’re already doing that at a global scale anyway.  So by saying we need to bring people out of poverty, which we clearly do, but we need to do it in a way which doesn’t destroy the planet, or push us over planetary boundaries.  That I think articulates really clearly the need to think about that trade-off, and to start thinking about different values, of different ways of valuing progress, and valuing human wellbeing in the developed nations, so that there is actually space on the planet for the poorer people from developing nations to actually improve their lifestyles, without us wrecking the planet.

So starting to try and address those types of things, and thinking about some goals which bring those issues into the open, but which don’t get too complicated and too impossible to negotiate, was part of the sort of discussion that was happening.

Glen Paul: Righteo.  So what about sustainable development as an oxymoron, which it is described by many as because it implies that we can keep our development going in the same way as we have over the past 100 years as long as we add some kind of sustainability, then all the detrimental effects of our development model go away.  What do you say to that interpretation?

Dr. Stafford Smith: Well I think it’s an oxymoron if you think of development in the way that we’ve done it over recent decades, as you say, because that’s been very much founded around development being more consumption.  I think if we start to reframe, as indeed Rio also committed to trying to do, if you start to reframe the measures of wellbeing and of happiness to be something which isn’t simply based on more consumption, which is essentially what measuring just by GDP does, then you start to see a way out of the conundrum that you just articulated, because what we actually want to develop – we don’t want to develop having more TVs per house, that’s not really a measure of happiness and wellbeing, we want to develop all sorts of other aspects of personal freedom, personal ability to learn, and things like that, a comfortable social environment, and certainly a safe natural environment as well.

And if you start thinking about how you could have continuous development in those things, it’s possible to do it potentially without having increasing consumption.  Now that’s a really challenging thing in our current economic models, in the current way in which we frame progress in the globe, but it’s not impossible, and really that is the great challenge for the next decade or so, and the issue around Sustainable Development Goals is a small example of how that challenge plays out in terms of thinking about what we ought to be measuring, instead of a straight GDP.

Glen Paul: So what’s next then for CSIRO in working towards these goals?

Dr. Stafford Smith: Well I think it’s important for CSIRO to be thinking about these issues, well for many reasons really, but for two particular reasons.  One is that if these goals are established by 2015 they will inevitably help to drive, just as the MDGs have, they will help to drive the focus of our overseas aid here in Australia, but also potentially the things that we measure inside Australia, too.  So I mean they will in fact help to set some of the future directions for the sort of research that an organisation like CSIRO ought to be doing.

So I mean we have considerable interest then I think in helping to ensure that they are created with a coherence which enables a sensible agenda to be pursued later on, and all the things I’ve mentioned are important in that.  But they’re also important of course because CSIRO does have, as part of its role, very much an obligation to be thinking ahead about these sorts of issues on behalf of Australia and the nation, and so there are various areas of research within CSIRO, like the Integrated Carbon Pathways Project, which is seeking to explore some of these types of issues, and we need to see that area, I think, of research gradually grow, so thinking about it is a really important thing.

Glen Paul: Indeed.  Thank you very much for discussing with us today, Mark.

Dr. Stafford Smith: No worries.

Glen Paul: Doctor Mark Stafford Smith.  And to find out more about the research, or to follow us on other social media, visit