For people like me who work in sustainable development, 2015 was a truly remarkable year because two great dreams were realised. We witnessed a worldwide commitment to an integrated and transformational agenda for sustainability (via the Sustainable Development Goals), as well as the achievement of a global agreement on climate change. The arrival of this “dynamic duo” was energising, inspiring, and in many ways quite surprising, since many believed it could not be done. It represented a huge leap forward for our profession.
For the world, it was much more important than that.
The SDGs were the product of years of thinking, talking, experimenting, debating, and negotiating, involving hundreds of thousands of people, from every country on Earth. The formal process began with the UN’s “Rio+20” conference, in 2012, and concluded with the unanimous approval of the “2030 Agenda” at United Nations Headquarters in New York, on September 25, 2015. But in many ways, the SDGs are the culmination of a decades-long process that began in the late 1980s, most visibly with the publication of the UN’s “Brundtland Report,” Our Common Future (1987).
In other words, the SDGs are the work of a generation. Or maybe two, since researchers and writers have been alerting us to the need for a systemic, sustainable, and global approach to human economic and social development since at least the 1950s.
But I am old enough to know that even generational transformations can quickly go from being astonishing to being “old hat.” Consider how quickly the world took the end of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the economic transformation of China for granted — forgetting, in an historical instant, how miraculous these changes appeared at the time they began. The SDGs and the Paris Agreement are destined to be similarly absorbed into the global political landscape, in the blink of an eye. Awe and wonder are very fleeting emotions. In truth, it was a relatively small number of people who felt those emotions when watching this great achievement occur last year.
That’s why I have dedicated a considerable portion of my time to activities that we call, in Swedish, “anchoring”: making sure the SDGs are here to last. Helping them become embedded in the hearts and minds of as many people as possible. Not just intellectually, but also emotionally: in addition to recognizing that the SDGs have now became a crucial framework for thinking about policy and decision-making, we also have to feel a commitment to these new global goals. And keep the commitment going for at least 15 years.
After nearly 28 years since the kick-off moment of the Brundtland report, during most of which we sustainability professionals were swimming against the tide, it seems the tide is starting to turn. The great tide of humanity. The world has decided to embrace a sustainable future, with a clear vision, consensus goals, specific targets. It’s truly wonderful.
So, happy 2016. Happy “Year 1” of the era of the SDGs. Time to go to work!