This past week, TOP researchers Patrícia Dérer and Jenna Dodson organized a successful seminar focused on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. As part of Act Sustainable! Week at the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), participants enthusiastically discussed five potential additions to the SDGs: air quality, democratic governments, harmful chemicals, ocean acidification, and naturally, human population growth.
By The Overpopulation Project
On the 7th of November, around fifty people gathered in Ekocentrum, Gothenburg to discuss the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Six main speakers considered missing fields that the SDGs do not cover well enough. These researchers from different fields briefly presented their favored neglected topics within the SDG system. Thereafter the audience voted for their preferred new SDG to add.
The Sustainable Development Goals, the 17 goals aiming to transform the world by 2030, are discussed often in Sweden, whose national government also offers research funding to support achieving the goals. As the UN says, “the 2030 Agenda has provided a blueprint for shared prosperity in a sustainable world—a world where all people can live productive, vibrant and peaceful lives on a healthy planet”. The Agenda calls for action by all countries – from poor to rich – to promote prosperity among all the people on Earth while protecting life in its waters and on its land.
The 17 SDGs and their 169 specific targets were set in 2015, with progress since then measured by 223 indicators. They show us that progress has been very slow in some areas, and currently there is no country on track to achieve all the SDGs. There are goals, such as No.1 “No Poverty”, where favorable trends are evident, but in many areas, we still need urgent collective action in order to turn back negative trends. As the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report summarizes: “The natural environment is deteriorating at an alarming rate: sea levels are rising; ocean acidification is accelerating; the past four years have been the warmest on record; one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction; and land degradation continues unchecked. We are also moving too slowly in our efforts to end human suffering as global hunger is on the rise.”1
As we are not on track to achieve social, economic or environmental sustainability, one wonders, is something missing? At the “Missing SDG seminar”, we focused on important issues that are not covered well enough by the current 17 SDGs.
Our first speaker, Erik Thomson, Department of Chemistry & Molecular Biology, drew our attention to the invisible substance that surrounds us unnoticed. Every living creature’s life depends on it, but many times it causes serious health problems as well. This is air. Erik suggested “Clean Air” as the 18th SDG, since currently 8 million people die annually from air pollution. And yet, unlike the rest of the classic elements (water, earth, fire) air is currently included only implicitly under other SDGs. Erik suggested a separate, independent goal dedicated to “Clean Air” with 4 targets (Fig 2), convincing us about the importance of keeping this common, shared resource clean.
Johan Karlsson Schaffer, School of Global Studies, argued for “Strengthen democracy and end autocracy” as SDG goal 18. SDG 16, “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions,” promotes peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice and inclusive institutions. Yet arguably that SDG and the SDGs as a whole neglect some essential components: democracy, parliaments, parties, free elections, and freedom of expression. Johan argued that democracies are better at protecting human rights than autocracies, and ensuring democracy is instrumental to achieve reduced inequalities or zero hunger, since famine has never occurred in an independent, democratic country with a relatively free press. Also, he mentioned the example of Chernobyl, to argue that democracies are likely to be essential to achieve environmental sustainability. More people living under regimes with representative governments and free elections would help to achieve many other SDGs as well.
Thomas Backhaus, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, presented the field of ecotoxicology, with facts on how much our environment and people themselves are exposed to potentially harmful chemical cocktails. One striking point is that out of the 104 chemicals registered in environmental samples, only 45 are EU-wide monitored pollutants. He highlighted how little we know about chemical safety, maybe due to the complexity of the issue. There are no complete and sufficient datasets and the “toxic ignorance” is serious. The SDGs do not cover chemical safety, or include targets for achieving a non-toxic environment. In Sweden, the situation is better, since “Non-Toxic Environment” is one of 16 environmental quality objectives set by the Swedish Government. However, it is clear that it is not possible to achieve this environmental quality objective based on current policy instruments, so improvements are needed in Sweden, as they are globally.
On behalf of The Overpopulation Project, Jenna Dodson and Patrícia Dérer presented the synergistic goal “End Population Growth”. We highlighted the role of population growth in driving biodiversity loss and climate change, problems that helped spur the creation of the SDGs. We argued that we need to address population growth directly, in order to achieve better progress for most of the other SDGs. If population increase remains unchecked, it will undermine achievement of the SDGs focused on ending hunger and poverty and reaching environmental sustainability.
We argued that it is possible to influence future population growth through rights-based policies. Demography is not destiny, but to some degree a political choice. There are proven policies, such as voluntary family planning programs providing free or inexpensive access to contraceptives, that can drive fertility rates down by avoiding unwanted pregnancies. We highlighted the social, economic and environmental benefits of small families. We pointed out the importance of better-covered targets in the SDGs that also help with slowing down population growth, such as quality education and gender equality. We hope we convinced the audience about the importance of including “End Population Growth” in the SDGs. The results of the voting suggest that we did, since “End Population Growth” got by far the most votes.
Our last speaker, Sam Dupont, Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences, came to our seminar to discuss what is missing from an existing target under SDG 14 (“Life in the Sea”), namely target 14.3 that aims to minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification. He showed us that the SDGs are probably not even the right tool to address ocean acidification. SDG 14 recognizes the gravity of the problem, articulates its target very precisely, and even offers the right indicator for tackling the symptoms of ocean acidification. Still, the tools for action are missing or not adapted to the global scale of the problem. Sam highlighted that in order to reach the SDG target on ocean acidification, we need policy changes at the global level (in order to limit GHG emissions) and change in individual behaviors through education (in order to accelerate adaptation by the people affected the most by acidification). He also highlighted the importance of solidarity and the involvement of local people in data collection, in order to achieve better adaptation to ocean acidification.
All the talks at the “Missing SDG” seminar seemed to engage the audience; they raised many questions and generated interesting discussions afterwards. We would like to say “Thank you!” to everyone participating in the seminar, as speaker or listener, and we hope everybody learned a lot during this evening.
Do you want to learn more about the solutions for overpopulation and actions towards sustainability? What actions we need to take on individual, community, national and global level? Check out The Overpopulation Project’s list of solutions!
- United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals Report.; 2019. doi:10.18356/3405d09f-en