When Pope Francis took the stage the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, he gently upbraided the gathering about the irresponsible management of the global economy and allowing the large-scale destruction of biodiversity. “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” the Pope said. “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion.”

As a well-known champion of protecting the environment and a strong voice in the fight against climate change, it was, perhaps, most appropriate that the Pope's address came at the start of the special session of the General Assembly to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals.

The 193-member states of the United Nations adopted the agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals about an hour after the Pope’s speech. The SDGs, as they are called, are a new set of global goals that take off where the Millennium Development Goals left off. The Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000 as the most far-reaching measures to end poverty and expire at the end of this year. The SDG clock starts on January 1, 2016, and runs till 2030.

The SDGs also focus on ending poverty but with equal emphasis on people and countries living within their ecological means – a lesson that has been learnt by the global community that has already started experiencing the outcomes of climate change. The agenda includes 17 goals and 169 targets that include ending poverty and hunger; promoting health and equitable education; achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls; providing water, sanitation and clean energy for all; making cities inclusive and safe; and building institutions that are accountable to people.

Civil society activists are happy that the SDGs have raised the level of ambition from the previous set of only eight global goals. A separate goal, SDG 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls along with gender sensitive-targets set out in order to achieve other goals is being perceived as a big victory.

Financing the new agenda

Achieving the new ambitious goals is all about finding the resources to do so with the required global budget likely to run into trillions every year.  The SDG process will take its cue from the third international conference on Financing for Development that was held in Addis Ababa in July. The solutions include a mechanism to transfer technology from developed to developing nations and better-defined avenues for private sector participation.

Climate Change

The SDGs document is sending a signal for strong action at the Conference of Parties at Paris in December – a make-or-break meeting to finalise global action to tackle climate change. While the SDG document defers to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for such negotiations, it urges “the widest possible international cooperation aimed at accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions and addressing adaptation to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

The SDG document noted the significant gap between the action already pledged by countries and what needs to be done to restrict temperatures to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Speaking at the General Assembly on the adoption of the SDGs, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated the country’s long-held position on climate talks. “The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is the foundation of our enterprise for a sustainable world," he said. "I hope that technology facilitation, technology innovation will contribute a lot to the development of the world.”

What’s missing

Members of civil society acknowledge that the SDGs have been finalised by a far more inclusive process than most global agreements, taking into account the voices of rich and poor countries, governments and citizens. Yet, a critical cog in ensuring that the goals are achieved is missing. “Like MDGs, in the SDGs what’s missing is a clear accountability framework and a clear monitoring framework,” said Amitabh Behar, executive director of the National Foundation of India. Without a clearly chalked out system of accountability, it remains unclear whether governments themselves will monitor their progress on the goals and, if so, what the checks and balances will be.

Another criticism is that the SDGs don’t do enough to address social exclusion and inequality. “We are measuring poverty through its length and breadth but we are not measuring its concentration and what that’s doing to inequality,” said Louisa Emilia Reyes, coordinator of gender and budget at Equidad de Genero, a feminist organization in Mexico.

The awareness campaign

The launch and implementation of the MDGs happened for the most part in serious meetings between government leaders, diplomats and international NGOs and out of the public eye. Not so with the SDGs. Civil society leaders have realised that there will be no accountability without awareness and have organised meetings, parties and concerts in cities around the world calling on people to “light the way” for the SDGs.


Scroll.in has been invited  by UN Women to cover the United Nations General Assembly special session.