The impact of the sustainable development concept — Frank Biermann

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Since its inception in the international development discourse in the late 1980s, sustainable development has often been celebrated for its rhetorical appeal to political correctness. But is it a useful tool for global development?

The idea of “sustainable development” has not only acquired new layers of meaning over the years but has in many ways witnessed a rejuvenation since 2015 following the adoption by world leaders of the 2030 Agenda and its accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs – grouped under overarching themes of people, planet, dignity, prosperity, justice and partnership – have been widely praised for a strong articulation of an environmental dimension, in addition to breaking new ground with global goals on inequality, economic growth, energy, and peace.

Despite being imperfect and highly ambitious, the SDGs are the result of a comprehensive participatory process, unparalleled in the history of global development. Indeed, while its predecessor – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – focused exclusively on low-income countries, the SDGs encompass a much broader agenda that applies to all countries.

By closely linking “sustainability” with “development” through the principles of “universality”, “integration” and “leave no one behind”, the 2030 Agenda has been much celebrated in activist, business and policy circles as a means to stimulate a radical shift in world affairs. But the SDGs have also been criticized for their unrealistic ambitions and lack of focus.

The world was already off-track in achieving many of the SDGs before Covid struck. And now there are major concerns over the extent to which these ambitious global goals can be achieved in the next 9 years.

Frank Biermann is a professor of Global Sustainability Governance at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Frank is a leading scholar of global institutions and organizations in the sustainability domain. In addition to being a prolific writer, he pioneered the ‘earth system’ governance paradigm in 2005 and was the founder and first chair (2008-2018) of the Earth System Governance Project, a leading global transdisciplinary research network of sustainability scholars.

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