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Critical Analysis of the UN's SDGs: Let's be Smart First! 19 Ways to Achieve This and Why

It's essential to understand that the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) entail more than just 17 objectives. Each goal has a specific number of targets, precisely 169! Have you ever attempted to accomplish 169 intricate tasks all at once? I presume it wasn't very successful. Keep reading to learn about a more efficient and intelligent approach to creating a cleaner, safer, and healthier planet.

Multiple signposts pointing in lots of different directions on a mountain top

Are we on track to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

Unfortunately, no. The 2022 Sustainable Development Report paints a concerning picture of the world's progress towards the UN's 2030 target. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was making progress towards the SDGs at a rate of +0.5 index points per year, still not enough to reach the 2030 target. However, for the past two years, the SDG index rate has remained stagnant and even declined in 2021. Several factors could contribute to this, such as the aftermath of the pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine resulting in inflation and global energy market fluctuations. Nevertheless, it raises the question, are we being smart first and prioritising the most pressing issues?

A smarter approach to sustainable development is to prioritize the most critical issues and focus on solving them first. Through the Post-2015 Consensus Project, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre collaborated with experts from the UN, NGOs, and the private sector to conduct extensive research. Over 60 teams of economists analysed the social, economic, and environmental benefits of each dollar spent and identified the most effective targets.

The results revealed that reducing world trade restrictions returned the highest value at $2,011 per dollar spent, followed by universal access to contraception at $120 per dollar, and aspirin heart attack therapy at $63 per dollar. However, renewable energy only yielded a return of $0.8 per dollar spent, and efforts to meet the 2°C climate change target returned less than $1 per dollar spent. A more helpful (and realistic) climate solution would be to invest in ensuring that the 2.4 billion people who rely on biomass for cooking fuel (such as animal dung and wood) have access to clean alternatives, which could return over $15 per dollar spent. Finn Kydland, an economics professor at the University of California and a Nobel Laureate who served on the expert panel for the Post-2015 Consensus project, noted that having 169 targets poses an insurmountable challenge.

"The natural political inclination is to promise all good things to everyone, and the UN is currently poised to pick 169 well-intentioned targets. The analyses of the experts suggest that some of the targets are barely worthwhile, producing only a little more than $1 in social benefits per dollar spent, while others produce much higher social returns."


As we approach the halfway point of the 2030 deadline, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have a long way to go in achieving the UN targets. Despite our efforts, it seems peripheral targets such as the promotion of nature-friendly lifestyles and increased recycling are treated with the same urgency as eradicating extreme poverty and ensuring that everyone has access to clean drinking water. Unfortunately, this approach is only serving to slow our progress towards the UN's goals, and we must refocus our efforts if we hope to make meaningful strides in the years ahead.

19 ways to be smart first!

It is crucial to prioritize certain targets over others in terms of cost-effectiveness. The Post-2015 Consensus expert panel has rigorously reviewed over 100 targets in 22 areas and has identified 19 targets that provide the best value for money between 2016-2030, grouped under three themes - people, planet, and prosperity. Below are some of these targets along with lives saved, damage prevented, and their implementation costs:

  • Lowering chronic child malnutrition by 40% through nutritional supplements, deworming, and implementing a balanced diet for 0-2-year-olds would save 68 million children at a cost of $11bn.

  • Reducing early death from chronic diseases by 1/3 through raising tobacco prices, administering aspirin for heart disease, reducing salt intake, and providing low-cost blood pressure medicine would save 5 million lives costing $9bn.

  • Cutting indoor air pollution by 20% by providing clean cooking fuels to those without access would save 1.3 million lives at a cost of $11bn.

  • Achieving universal primary education in sub-Saharan Africa to enable 30 million more children per year to attend primary school would cost $9bn.

  • Reducing trade restrictions to lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty and help them earn an additional $1,000 by 2030 would cost $20bn per year.

We often choose to prioritise targets that may appear impressive and well-intentioned on paper, but ultimately have little impact on the world's most impoverished populations. This behaviour is commonly referred to as "virtue signalling." While it may feel good to tell others that we care about the environment and take actions like recycling or walking instead of driving, these actions do not directly improve the lives of those surviving on less than $2.15 per day (The International Poverty Line). We can glue ourselves to roads and block traffic in the name of the just stop oil campaign, but again, this does nothing to give disadvantaged children access to education that one day can be repaid in the form of economic benefits to their countries and perhaps even smart energy innovations.

Limits to growth

In the Western world, it is well known that as we become wealthier, we also become more invested in protecting the environment. However, for the 659 million people living in extreme poverty who wake up each day wondering where their next meal or clean drinking water will come from, survival takes priority over environmental concerns. Burning animal dung to cook your food and cutting down trees to keep warm at night is the reality these people live in. In order to address climate change, it is important to acknowledge the hypocrisy in denying developing nations the same economic growth that we have been privileged to enjoy. We should prioritise our focus on lifting people out of poverty and providing access to basic needs such as health, education, security, and mobility. Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, has highlighted this issue as a prevalent attitude in society today.

"According to the IPCC, the total impact of climate change amounts to about 0% of GDP now, and in 2100 will cost 2-4% of GDP. That’s a problem, but not one that remotely justifies blocking people’s opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. There is something deeply disturbing about telling others to forgo the benefits of economic growth and the chance to give billions the same opportunities they have enjoyed in terms of improved health care, shelter, education and income. What the world really needs is far more growth and far less hypocrisy".

To summarise, eliminating limits to growth is crucial in increasing the number of individuals who can thrive and drive innovation towards cleaner and dependable energy sources like nuclear fusion. This is essential for the development of future technologies that promote human flourishing and a sustainable planet for all those living on it.


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