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Sustainable Development Goals: developing prosperity within the confines of the earth’s system

In late September 2015, the United Nations agreed the new agenda on economically and environmentally sustainable development for the global community. We spoke about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with Professor Dirk Messner of the German Advisory Council on Global Change to the Federal Government (WBGU).

With the new Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations has set out an ambitious catalogue of globally sustainable development objectives geared to preparing the global community for the future both in economic and environmental terms over the next 15 years. In the interview, Professor Dirk Messner explains why achieving these goals must not remain just a pipe dream.

Professor Messner, in late September the Heads of State and Government of the UN member states agreed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the follow-up agenda to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). What is different about the new sustainability goals?

Professor Dirk Messner: Firstly, in addition to combatting poverty, which was at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals, the new SDGs will also include the major issues concerned with environmental sustainability: climate mitigation, protecting the oceans, agricultural areas, water reserves. This is crucial, because the fight against poverty can only succeed if we stop taking too much from and asking too much of our planet.

The second difference is that the Sustainable Development Goals are universal goals by which all countries, industrialised nations included, must measure themselves. This is crucial. Now not only developing countries have to prove that they are making efforts to attain social objectives. Industrialised countries and emerging economies will also have to demonstrate that they are reducing their consumption of natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions. The wealthy nations are the problem candidates when it comes to the environmental dimension. So for the first time the Sustainable Development Goals set out on a multilateral basis the socio-environmental space in which all countries should develop.

Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations

We must stop destroying the foundations of civilisation

17 specific goals have been set for 2030. From this catalogue of objectives, which are particularly important in your opinion?

Professor Dirk Messner: The goals are interdependent. It is not possible to offset social and environmental goals one against the other. Similarly, the governance targets referred to in the Sustainable Development Goals are key components, since development goals can only be reached by creating appropriate institutions and giving people the opportunity to exercise their rights. Nevertheless, it is important to have a basic rationale. In the past two decades we have made significant progress in the global fight against poverty, even though much remains to be done.

However, when it comes to the major common goods provided by the earth’s system – including the climate, the oceans and forests and available agricultural land – the trends are all going in the wrong direction. We have to stop the overuse, degradation and destruction of the basic natural resources of human civilisation. Otherwise all efforts to combat poverty will be in vain.

A study conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung recently looked at how the industrialised nations compared in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals and ranked the 34 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Germany came out very well in many areas, achieving a ranking of 6th overall. Nevertheless, Germany’s record on waste was criticised for the excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorous used in its agriculture and high levels of particulate matter prevalent in the major cities: annual waste mounts to 614 kilograms per capita (compared with an average of 483 kilograms per capita for industrialised countries as a whole). Is this the price we must pay for solid economic growth, high employment and low poverty rates?

Professor Dirk Messner: Like all industrialised countries, we Germans also consume too many resources, emit too many greenhouse gases, generate enormous quantities of waste and throw away 30-40 per cent of our food. Here are the solutions: we have to learn to see all raw materials as integral elements of a closed loop and to develop an integrated closed-loop economy. We have a long way to go in that respect. The solution to greenhouse gas emissions is decarbonisation of the economy. Both these processes have to be concluded worldwide by 2070 if we are to stay within the limits of the Earth’s system.

About Dirk Messner

In 2004, Prof. Dirk Messner was appointed Director of the German Institute for Development Policy (DIE) in Bonn and Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change to the Federal Government (WBGU). As a political scientist, Prof. Messner also teaches at the University of Duisburg-Essen, where he is co-director of the Käte Hamburger Collegium ‘Political Cultures of World Society’ and the Center for Advanced Studies on Global Cooperation Research.

Sustainable Development Goals: the individual can achieve a lot

Waste is just one of the areas which regularly prompts talk of individual responsibility. But is this really the right approach – given the problem’s global perspective?

Professor Dirk Messner: The individual can do a great deal: we are personally responsible for our mobility. After all, you can choose to drive a gas-guzzler  or travel by public transport. We are also personally responsible for the food that goes directly from our refrigerator into the waste bin. But if decarbonisation and the closed-loop economy are to work, we have to create the appropriate institutional framework, a levy on emissions for example, or resource efficiency standards.

We must abandon fossil energy sources worldwide by 2070 if we are to keep within the 2-degree guardrail. By 2050 the industrialised nations must have cut emissions by 80-90%. And by 2030 all countries must have set out on a course towards renewable energies – this applies in particular to emerging economies.

WBGU Co-Chair Dirk Messner on the new Sustainable Development Goals

Pioneers must demonstrate that sustainability can work

One final question: given everything you know about what needs to be done to give a future population of nine billion people a dignified existence on Earth: how optimistic are you about the future?

Professor Dirk Messner: We have almost all the elements necessary for the switch to sustainability: technological solutions, institutional and social innovations; that switch can be financed. Now it is important for the pioneers to show that sustainability can work. That’s why the renewable energy revolution in Germany and similar efforts in Denmark, for example, are so important. If these succeed, many others will follow.

Germany-Alumni take on responsibility

With its campaign “Sustainable living – I support this!”, the Alumniportal wants to show that Germany-Alumni all over the world are committed to a sustainable life according to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Alumni from 115 different countries took part and tell us now what the SDGs mean to them personally.


September 2015

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