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Sustainable Development Goals: Can the UN stimulate the global action and accountability we need?

John Romano

Posted April 17, 2013

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Twenty years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world acknowledged that we stood at a crucial crossroads: Continuing with the status quo of prioritizing economic growth while neglecting social inequities and environmental degradation, or charting a new path to a more sustainable and equitable future with both people and planet at the center.  And while we face a similar challenge today - one where we are confronted with some of same compounding issues, and more - we face this situation with a dramatic twist to it all: Urgency.

The truth of the matter is that we are quickly running out of time. With the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set to convene again this week, we have been given a second chance; another shot at what is surely our last opportunity to fix what has been broken for decades. These SDGs, one of the main outcomes of the Rio+20 conference last June, are a critical opportunity for the world to build upon the lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals and to address the new and emerging challenges that we face today- reflecting the need to address mounting social inequality around the world and planetary boundaries. 

Action and accountability must be at the very core of the SDGs; and we should accept no less than this.They must acknowledge and underscore that while sustainable development is inherently forward looking, many of these issues are imminent and require swift and effective action today.  This is our opportunity to establish the framework for a global sustainable development agenda that reflects the current reality of the present, while taking into account the future needs of the present generation of youth who will inherit a world in which progress on sustainable development has stagnated. The SDGs must provide clear governance and accountability structures which need to be inclusive to all stakeholders- including young peopleThey should spur action to re-think traditional development strategies and must tackle the root causes of social injustice and environmental degradation.


(photo credit: UN Photo)

"The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we used to create them." -Albert Einstein

While setting long term and action-oriented goals is a crucial first step forward, it should be made very clear that shorter term indicators and concrete plans of implementation must accompany these SDGs. This is critical if we are to ensure that progress is made and that we are all held accountable in the end. After all, goals are merely indicators and words on paper if there is no action plan to implement these goals; An action plan is merely a strategy if implementation is insufficient; and implementation will be lacking if there is no way to follow up and hold governments and stakeholders accountable for their commitments and actions. 

In an increasingly globalized, interconnected and interdependent world, we are entering a new age of global action; one in which PINCs (Partnerships, Initiatives, Networks and Coalitions) are evermore crucial to the on the ground implementation of sustainable development at all levels. They represent a new bottom-up and synergistic approach to addressing the wide range of issues that we face today. And in the absence of a global agreement on sustainable development or climate change, PINCs can truly drive the transformative change that we so desperately need.

We yet again stand at a crucial crossroads. With time running out to address these very real and pressing issues – arguably the most important issues of this generation – governments must seize this opportunity to catalyze real action. The success and effectiveness of the SDGs will undoubtedly determine if the Future We Want truly is the future we all want, or if it merely reflects the future that could have been.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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