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Efforts are gathering momentum by the international community towards meeting the objectives set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which end in 2015. However, the world of the year 2000 at the time these goals were adopted has since undergone massive upheavals in the form of environmental problems, natural disasters, and economic and financial crises. In light of such fundamental changes and future challenges, initiatives and actions geared towards the succeeding international development goals, which will supplement those of the MDGs, are already underway. Going forward, as a route to achieving sustainable development, a broader, more inclusive approach that balances the economy, environment and society in the form of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was thus emphasised at the recent Rio+20 conference.

This month, we hear from Dr. Dave Griggs, Director of the Monash Sustainability Institute on recommendations for SDGs. Dr. Grigg's group recently published a paper in "Nature" magazine entitled "Sustainable development goals for people and planet".

--- Can we start by asking you to define what SDGs actually are?

Griggs:

Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, don't actually exist at the moment; we currently have Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, which were agreed on in the year 2000, with the aim of moving the development agenda forward in the world and addressing issues such as extreme poverty. These goals come to an end in 2015, and so the hope is that they will be replaced by Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to take development a step further to also embrace environmental considerations - in other words, to chart a pathway towards a sustainable future.

--- In the paper published in "Nature" (March 2013 Vol.495), you presented some recommendations for Sustainable Development Goals. Could you please tell us how you came up with them and what they are?

Griggs:

The first thing is that development to date has centered on exploiting the world's natural resources; we've utilised the natural environment and minerals from the ground to fuel human and social development. That has been successful to some extent, but there are still a billion undernourished people on the planet, so we haven't done a great job. In scientific terms we have been exchanging natural capital - the natural environment - for human and social capital; in other words, bringing people out of poverty and so on.

This may have been acceptable a century ago due to the small population, essentially infinite natural environment, abundance of coal, forests and land to grow on, but things have now changed. A larger population, especially since the 1950s, has increased the stress on the natural environment, and we think we are now entering into a new geological epoch called Anthropocene, where humans dominate. Development henceforth thus cannot proceed by unsustainable exploitation of our natural resources.

The focus of our paper is to propose a path towards a more sustainable future, and include preservation of the natural environment, together with the services related to it, also addressing extreme poverty, to raise the general level of well-being.

--- And you list six specific goals, right?

Griggs:

The number is actually irrelevant; it could be six, eight or ten. What's important is whether it's feasible. We chose six goals.

The first is thriving lives and livelihoods. That is, the quest is meaningless if it doesn't improve the human condition in terms of health, education, societal rights; people need to be happy.

Second is sustainable food production. We need to have enough food to go around - one of the Millennium Development Goals - but enabling this must be sustainable; we need to act responsibly. The projected nine billion people on the planet by 2050 cannot be fed by a slash-n-burn policy as this erodes biodiversity. The answer is sustainable food production that accounts for the natural environment.

Third is sustainable water. Water is essential for life but most of it ends up in agriculture. Given that it's a finite resource, we'll have to use it more efficiently - for drinking, sanitation and for agriculture.

Fourth is sustainable energy. We need energy for warmth, to power homes and so on. It also provides more independence and individual freedom; for example, children can start to do homework at night, people can start to read. The need for energy is just as great as the need to stop burning fossil fuels, as that impacts the climate. So, the question is how can we increase sustainable forms of energy to achieve both our carbon targets and our energy targets at the same time.

Sixth is sustainable governance. We need institutions, governments and governance to secure all of the above. We need to feel safe and secure, have decent jobs and a supportive infrastructure.

These are the six goals, each of which could be subdivided and combined at will: you could split health and education into individual goals, or combine them all in different ways. The six we chose best summed up the challenges as we saw them.

--- And are these going to be fed into the process of creating the actual Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Griggs:

That's the intention, although those drawing up the goals will have the final say, and numerous complex official processes are involved.

At the Rio+20 last year the UN agreed to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals by 2016. An open working group comprised of 30 members, belonging to different countries, was formed, and is currently in the process of looking at how the goals can be developed. They're accepting input from a wide range of sources and one of those inputs hopefully will be our paper. I went to New York to present the paper to the open working group, and that is the stage they are presently at.

There are also numerous other processes, formal and informal, that are feeding in. There's the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which was set up by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and headed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University. This network intends to form a global network to address potential solutions to sustainability issues. A high-level panel of eminent persons has also just reported and offered a set of recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals. So the task of the open working group is to collate these various sources of information, the different views of each nation and national priorities, and crystalise them into a set of Sustainable Development Goals for 2015, which then need to be ratified by the UN.

--- Well, we look forward to seeing what they come up with and hope they take into account what you've mentioned.

Griggs:

So do I!

--- Thank you very much.

About "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability"

Until 2010, IGES released "Top News on the Environment in Asia" on a yearly basis. For over 12 years since its establishment of IGES in 1998, "Top News" collected and organised information about environmental issues and policy trends in the region.

In January 2011, IGES launched the new web-based series "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability" in which leading environmental experts deliver their take on latest trends of sustainable Asia.

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