About this guide
The Sustainable Development Goals, or Global Goals are extremely important for everyone to understand, as they guide all international co-operation on environmental and social justice. They are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. They were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030.
As a team of associates in Climate Museum UK, we aim to use a range of objects, stories and ideas as triggers for conversations about the Earth crisis and big social challenges. We actively encourage diverse opinions and open-ended talk, and so these SDGs are shared here in the same vein. They are very detailed and build on decades of expert work, but this does not mean we cannot challenge and criticise them.
Some of the main criticisms of the SDGs include:
- They don’t go far enough and are not binding
- They ignore underlying inequalities in the global system and histories of exploitative colonialism
- They are top down and bureacratic, and don’t work in local contexts
- They aren’t communicated as a system of interconnected areas of action (although there are good attempts to interpret them more ecologically, see the diagram above)
- Some of the goals (or targets) contradict or work against other goals
We encourage you to take a Possitopian approach when considering how these goals can impact on our futures, neither too optimistic or pessimistic, not too rigidly critical or too openly accepting.
We also encourage you to look at the goals with an ecological lens. For more about what this means, read this piece on Eco-capacities and putting an ‘eco lens on things’.
This resource was produced in time for World Environment Day 2021, Saturday 5th June, which this year is all about reimagining, recreating and restoring. The activities around the hashtag #GenerationRestoration pull together ecology and climate, highlighting the importance of thriving biodiversity and stewarded land in tackling climate change and other big challenges. We are part of the #UnitedforBiodiversity coalition that supports this movement.
About the 17 goals
The summaries here are the author’s interpretation, rather than as described officially, apart from some facts shared in the overview sections of the SDG website (which currently focus on the impacts of Covid-19).
Goal 1 No poverty
This goal is: End poverty in all its forms everywhere
- Poverty is defined as not having enough to meet essential material needs, or lacking shelter, food and clothing.
- The key measure is people living on less than $1.25 a day. The main target is to reduce this number of people to zero by 2030. The main measures include putting in place income ‘safety nets’ and equal rights to economic resources.
- This is a fundamental goal that overlaps a good deal with goals for education, employment and equality. It also overlaps with environmental goals as natural disasters and zoonotic pandemics (like Covid-19) worsen poverty. This goal includes a target to protect the poor against these impacts.
Goal 2 Zero Hunger
This goal is: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
- Hunger is part of poverty so it goes hand in hand with goal one, but is also strongly tied to the most environment-focused goals. One fifth of under 5s globally are stunted (short in height) due to malnutrition, and 47 million are affected by wasting (low weight).
- Food security is the state when people are confident that they have access to food, into the future. There is rising food insecurity due to a mix of factors including Covid-19, climate shocks, conflict and pests. Other key factors are that poor countries have to export their crops as they are tied into debt, while growing economies or corporations are grabbing land in other countries to use for themselves.
- The food system has become more large-scale, efficient and globalised to feed a growing population, but it has depleted soil fertility, contributed to climate change, and the industrial processing of food has caused heart disease, cancer, obesity and malnutrition.
Goal 3 Good health and wellbeing
This goal is: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
- Damage to the environment is behind most modern human health problems. Deforestation and consumption of wild animals leads to zoonotic pandemics like Covid-19. Pollution and processed foods cause cancers, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Road traffic accidents cause 1.35 million deaths a year.
- Healthcare is unequally provided. Less than half the global population can access essential health services. The poorest regions are vulnerable to diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and typhoid, which are worsened because of poor housing, water, sanitation and nutrition.
- Targets for this goal include reducing drug, alcohol & tobacco addition, neo-natal & maternal mortality, and AIDS.
Goal 4 Quality education
This goal is: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
- The targets for this goal are about providing early years, primary, secondary and lifelong education for everyone, regardless of gender, disability or other factors, by 2030.
- Before Covid-19, 53% of young people were completing secondary education globally. Due to the pandemic, education has been disrupted for 90% of school students. Given that Covid-19 is caused by environmental harm, it shows how environmental factors can affect access to education.
- There are some criticisms of the push to formal schooling for all children, particularly for people living in traditional indigenous communities, or where schools are established by religious or corporate philanthropists.
- Criticisms aside, learning of relevant skills and knowledge is vital for people to adapt to and mitigate a changing environment, with challenges such as food insecurity, disease and ideological conflict. Learning is also vital to overcome misinformation.
Goal 5 Gender Equality
This goal is: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
- Some UNESCO research has found, surprisingly, that the most effective climate action is education for girls. This is because educated girls have more control over their reproductive rights, have fewer babies and have them later. The world’s population has tripled in the past 70 years, and growing populations need to be fed, which combined with unsustainable farming practices, is a major factor in causing the Earth crisis.
- Where more women are able to work, own land and make decisions for communities, there tends to be less conflict and better provision for people’s needs.
- Discrimination against girls and women can be extremely harmful, and often violent. It is only right that half the world’s population should be as free as the other half to live peacefully, freely and healthily. It also means that there is half the pool of ideas if women can’t contribute fully.
Goal 6 Clean water and sanitation
This goal is: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
- This brings together several SDG themes in one element vital to life – water.
- Fresh water is being used up by big agriculture, energy plants and industry, and some people are left with no clean water for their own crops, washing or drinking.
- Climate change is causing drought, so that land and animals need more water artificially provided (which can only be provided for farm land, if at all, not for wild places).
- 4.2 billion people lack safe, clean water and water systems (e.g. sewage). Problems with access to water cause multiple illnesses.
- By 2030, 700 million people could have to migrate due to lack of water.
- Solutions to access to water include desalination (converting salt water), reducing water in industrial processes, restoring rivers and wetlands, water harvesting strategies, and investing in modern drainage, toilets and water cleaning where it’s needed.
Goal 7 Affordable and Clean energy
This goal is: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
- Nearly 800 million people lack electricity. This is a problem because burning wood and dirty fuels is extremely bad for the climate and air quality. It also means that modern kinds of education, health and work cannot easily take place.
- There are two main ways of providing sustainable energy – top down and bottom up. The most controversial top-down routes are nuclear energy and hydro-electric energy (e.g. by building dams). Bottom-up solutions include communities creating their own micro-generation grids. In between these extremes, some governments are enabling more local and co-operative large-scale renewable energy projects.
- Renewable types of energy include:
- Solar energy (e.g. solar panels on buildings)
- Wind energy (e.g. wind turbines at sea or on hills)
- Tidal energy (e.g. turbines in estuaries where tidal flow is strong)
- Geothermal energy (e.g. capturing the heat from the earth)
- Biomass energy (e.g. converting agricultural waste into energy)
Goal 8 Decent work and economic growth
This goal is: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
- This is the most controversial SDG because some say that economic growth is the root of the problems that the SDGs are trying to address. Its critics say that we do not need to provide employment for all but instead we need to reform the system that ties people into work in order to survive. Instead, people should have access to land for self-sufficiency, or there should be a universal basic income, or we should use alternative currencies to enable people to work together.
- Rather than envisage economic growth as it is now, we can see this goal as ensuring that everyone is able to do the work needed for communities and the environment to thrive.
- The words ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable’ relate to the three pillars of sustainability:
- Sustained relates to the economic pillar i.e. businesses need to continue operating
- Inclusive relates to the social pillar i.e. equality and human rights respected
- Sustainable relates to the environmental pillar i.e. that economic activity does not harm but heals the planet’s systems.
- The term ‘full and productive’ could be replaced with ‘meaningful’ or ‘valuable’. People need to know that their work is beneficial for others and the world, not just serving to make money and enable survival. Work should be ‘decent’, which means that it does not demean or exploit people, and it should not make them do things that are immoral.
Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
This goal is: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.
- Rather than promote industrialisation as it is, we can envisage this goal as ecological innovation: design, technology, business and urban landscapes can be retrofitted and built with regenerative principles. This means not just minimising or offsetting their harm but actively solving multiple problems and helping to stabilise the climate.
- Positive deviance is an inspiring approach to innovation. People who are ‘positive deviants’ try new ways to do things and find better solutions to problems than neighbours or peers who have the same challenges.
- The other inspiring aspect about this SDG is that it encourages experimentation (or Research & Development). This means trying out several different options, or carrying out research without knowing what the end goal will be, or building diverse teams that generate new ideas by mixing unexpected elements and perspectives together.
Goal 10 Reduced inequalities
This goal is: Reduce inequality within and among countries
- Inequality is mainly measured in people’s incomes. Income inequality in countries is tracked with the Gini index of 0-100, where 0 is income being shared equally and 100 is one person holding all the wealth. Some of the most unequal countries are Brazil and South Africa. The most equal countries are in Scandinavia and north eastern Europe. The UK is near the most unequal country in Europe.
- Economic recession caused by Covid-19 and climate impacts is threatening income equality. The rich are getting richer, and funds for aid for poor countries and disasters are shrinking. These countries are most likely to be badly affected by pandemics and climate disasters, so aid is shrinking as their need is growing.
- The targets in this goal include managing migration, because migrants are more likely to be displaced from the worst affected regions and are also most likely to suffer from inequalities in countries they migrate to.
Goal 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
This goal is: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
- As the global population has tripled, growing populations have crowded into cities while also land has been grabbed by big agriculture, needing to produce more food, and industrial jobs have centred in cities. The pace of change, and the inequalities in the global capitalist system, have made some cities very challenging places to live.
- A quarter of people live in slums, and air pollution is causing 4.2 million extra deaths a year. Cities can be unhealthy as diseases like Covid-19 spread in crowded places and where people have to work indoors. People in cities tend to eat more processed food and suffer from heart disease and obesity.
- Big, unequal cities can also be more vulnerable to climate impacts. They are often located by coasts or rivers, threatened by rising sea levels. Cities can harbour heat, causing deaths in heatwaves.
Goal 12 Responsible Consumption and Production
This goal is: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
- The current dominant economy is linear: Resources are taken, too many things are made, too much material is wasted, they are transported too far, and then the things are not used enough or they are discarded. In the process they destroy or pollute environments, cause human ill-health and their emissions worsen climate change. This is extremely unequal so that the richest 10% of the world consume half and make 50% of climate emissions.
- Most people already do take only just enough. It is hard for people to take more or to take less if the environment they are in forces their behaviour. The action to take less needs to start with the richest 10%. But, most importantly change to the whole system needs to happen.
- The changes needed are not just for the current ways of doing consumption and production to be more circular (e.g. more recycling, less pollution) but they need to be more regenerative. For example, the poorest people need to be able to steward and farm land in traditional ways that restore biodiversity. Companies need to be reinvented so that their main goal is not to make profit but to restore the climate, ocean health or forests.
Goal 13 Climate Action
This goal is: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
- Climate breakdown is caused by the consumption of fossil fuels and damage to carbon sinks (land and oceans), and is worsened by the way that climate change itself harms land and oceans (e.g. bigger forest fires).
- This human-caused climate change is here already, and causing disasters and deaths already. 2020 was the hottest year on record, causing record melting of polar ice, which will cause sea levels to rise and storms to become more large and dangerous. Global warming also causes extreme heat waves, drought and wildfires, which kill people and animals, and reduces crop yields.
- The reasons for hope lie in curtailing the oil industry and keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Currently, more money is invested in fossil fuels than in climate actions.
- The targets include helping countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Goal 14 Life Below water
This goal is: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. (This is a sister to the goal for Life on Land.)
- The ocean is the biggest carbon sink on the planet (as 93% of carbon is stored in the ocean). Its role in stabilising the climate is being broken by acidification, happening due to climate change and pollution from farming fertilisers and oil spills. Ocean warming and acidification is also bleaching and killing coral reefs, havens of biodiversity.
- The ocean is also being badly damaged by commercial fishing which uses massive nets to scrape the ocean floor. Bycatch from this fishing kills 300,000 whales and dolphins a year. The loss of fertilising life in the ocean reduces its ability to act as a carbon sink.
- Plastic pollution is a major problem for oceans, with fishing nets a big contributor. 46% of the Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets. The majority of other plastics enter oceans from just 10 rivers.
- Sustainable fishing can contribute to national economies up to 10 times more than harmful fishing.
Goal 15 Life on land
This goal is: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
- Two billion hectares of land on Earth are degraded, affecting 3.2 billion people, driving 31,000 species to extinction and intensifying climate change (which in turn will affect even more people and species).
- The main reasons for degraded land are deforestation for animal feed and biofuels; large-scale agriculture; pollution from industry/farming; and the expansion of urban settlements and transport.
- This goal is a sister of 14 ‘Life below water’ as both land and sea have been exploited for human nutrition and polluted by our waste and transport, and both are vital as carbon sinks to restore the stability of the climate.
Goal 16 Peace, justice and strong institutions
This goal is: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
- This goal is all about reducing war and serious crime, partly so that it is not an obstacle to sustainable development.
- Harms to the environment are a major and historic factor in triggering and worsening crime and conflict. In turn, armed conflict causes great harm to urban and natural environments (e.g. chemical contamination), and the growing and production of illegal drugs (e.g. cocaine) can also be harmful.
- Every day 100 civilians are killed in armed conflict. Outside of war, there are 440,000 murders a year.
Goal 17 Partnerships for the goals
This goal is: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
- The targets in this goal address how national governments will collaborate to deliver the goals, including how richer countries will give financial aid and help countries in debt, how they will support technological infrastructure (e.g. broadband), how they will organise trade deals, and ensure the sharing of data for global decision-making.
- It is about how countries and big companies and NGOs can collaborate to achieve big, complex outcomes.
Activities to explore the SDGs
Create your own set of cards
We’ve created our own SDG activity kit for our pop-ups and workshops. It consists of the Goals printed out on card and cut up, an explanatory booklet, a globe, a diagram that shows one way to organise them, and an activity prompt to order and organise them in different ways. You can make your own version, or we can come to you (if in or near London) to run a workshop using these and other resources.
This set of lesson plans includes an idea for a circle activity, which we’ve interpreted here. Place an object (e.g. a plant or globe) in the centre. Lay out cards with the goals written on around the centre object. Invite participants to move the cards closer to themselves (their own concerns or interests). Participants might move from their seats to be closer to other people interested in the same goals. Goals that are less interesting will remain more or less closer to the centre. Ask people to talk together where they find themselves about why their goal matters so much to them. Ask these groups to choose a neglected goal and think about how their passion for their chosen goal can help them understand or care about the neglected one. At the end go round the whole group to get highlights from their conversations.
Global Goals Champions
These resources for primary schools include a passport and certificates for children. There are several short films on sustainable development issues and much more to connect with the curriculum (Scottish focus).
Improve on the UN’s action ideas
The UN has created a learning resource, which includes an ActNow Action Guide. These are fairly simple and familiar ideas. What more is necessary? How can your actions scale up and do more? Could you come up with a better list of actions that are still manageable but more powerful?
Or you could look at their book 170 Actions to Transform Our World, and play with them. Print out the pages, cut out the action cards. Ask participants to place them in different groups (good, OK, bad; or easy, medium, hard). Then make a shorter book with the best and the easiest actions. Or you could ask groups to take some and illustrate them, so that you can remake the book.
SDGs inspiring change
Can you see your school, youth group or family as a microcosm of the world? What problems do you have? Could the SDGs give you some clues and ideas to how you might collaborate together, make some rules, get inspired and make some changes? How can you aim to get to the root of the problem (e.g. food waste) and not just make tweaks but aim for real game-changers?
More learning resources on climate and ecology
We’ve created a collection of 50 learning resources, some of our own and some we recommend, for learning by schools and families.
Share what you find
There are many learning resources online about the SDGs, so many that it can be hard to find the best ones. Please let us know of excellent resources we should link to here. (Email us on email@example.com or comment on this post).