There is growing interest in “sustainable development”, defined by the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
However, political leaders in large parts of the world are yet to embrace the concept fully and make policies that promote it actively within their countries. The world is now in the fifth year of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and progress, by all accounts, has been slow.
New studies appearing at regular intervals warn us that “business as usual” will not suffice. Climate disruption at a fast pace is undoing many of the developmental successes we have achieved over the past few decades.
All studies invariably conclude by recommending that we immediately make radical and so-called “transformative” changes aimed at improving our lives as well as those of future generations that will have to bear the brunt of adverse consequences of our decisions. But world leaders are not acting, at least, not to the extent they should.
In many countries, there is an on-going and often polarised national debate on the extent to which the country should be prioritising “global goals” rather than goals that are more narrowly defined to apply to local situations (e.g. prioritising allocation of resources to selected regions and targeting selected groups in the population).
Most politicians appear to be consumed by the pressure to resolve numerous current problems and challenges and thus do not typically find it politically beneficial to engage in discussions of future problems that could affect a generation that is yet to be born.
Moreover, many global policy recommendations often overlook issues of local justice and messy local political realities including competition between groups for control over scarce resources. Thus, the goal of promoting sustainable development today with an eye on the well-being of future generations appears illusory for many governments struggling to solve current problems of extreme poverty and deprivation within their borders.
Even when there is ample and reliable scientific evidence pointing to the urgent need for societal transformations required to address the harmful consequences of global warming, political response in large parts of the world is lukewarm.
For the SDGs to make a difference on the ground, policymakers must acquire a better understanding on the global norm of goal-setting and balance how global targets link to national and local goals. And a wide range of societal actors must hold their leaders to account for actions as well as inactions. At the same time we must also highlight what is working, where, how and why, in addition to better understanding how risk perceptions affect political decision-making and behavioral change.