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6 reasons why the UN's Sustainable Development Goals matter

Opinion: launched in 2015, the goals bring a clarity to issues around sustainability, energy, global warming, hunger and poverty - Dr. Paul Bolger, UCC/ERI and Dr. Marria Kirrane UCC

You may have noticed that you can't turn on the radio/TV or scroll across social media at moment without coming upon sustainability-related terms such as "climate action", "zero carbon" or "nature positive". If a sustainable society could be achieved by the development of catchy phrases or terms, we would already be living in an eco-utopia!

Some have called this proclivity towards new names "eco-babble" or even "greenwashing". The term "sustainability" itself has suffered in being hard to define and having many interpretations. Then along came another term in 2015, namely the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, which were adopted in 2015 by all 193 member countries of the United Nations.

These finally brought a clarity to the sustainability concept with 17 goals and 169 targets. All UN member states committed to taking action to meet these goals, such as making energy clean and affordable, stopping global warming, ending hunger and poverty, and creating sustainable cities and communities.

The goals define the world we want

These apply to all nations and quite simply mean to transform our world. They are the equivalent to John F Kennedy’s moonshot. As Ban Ki-Moon put it, the goals represent "a shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world’s leaders and the people. They are a to-do list for people and the planet, and a blueprint for success."

They integrate environmental, social and economic objectives

The SDGs critically integrate social, economic, and environmental objectives. It is difficult for a hard-pressed parent trying to put food on the table or a roof over the heads of their children to be worried about the fate of our planet. Each goal provides us with the opportunity to achieve multiple objectives.

The goals are global

We all must move towards the goals together. Countries and populations cannot get left behind. The goals take into account different national realities, levels of development, and respect national policies and priorities.

They're interconnected

The individual goals do not stand alone but rather influence each other and are closely linked. We cannot achieve one goal at the expense of others.

The goals are relatable

No matter what we do we can all see a piece of ourselves, our own work, and values in the goals. In 2022 UCC conducted a university-wide exercise amongst academics and researchers to map their research on to the SDGs. Over 400 academics came forward to participate in the initiative.

We can measure them

Each goal is accompanied by a set targets and indicators that are used to measure progress towards implementation.

We're at the midpoint in the lifetime of the SDGs, but awareness remains low with only 1% of people globally saying they are very well informed about these goals. We need to increase efforts to translate these global goals into our everyday work, and connect them to community and personal lives. With seven years left to deliver on these ambitious and important goals, we need to combine our efforts for the common good now more than ever.

Schools and universities can play a key role. The SDGs serve as a reminder that nothing is possible without shared responsibility and collaboration. This is why UCC and Queen’s University Belfast have made to decision to co-host Ireland's first United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which was launched on February 23rd. SDSN Ireland will work to engage universities, research centres, local authorities, NGOs, civil society and policy makers to develop solutions and empower individuals and organisations to achieve impact through education and engagement.

Dr Paul Bolger is manager of the Environmental Reseach Institute at UCCDr Maria Kirrane is Sustainability Officer at UCC. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee.