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Sustainable Development Goals: What are they and are we on track?

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by 193 countries who sit in the UN General Assembly, in 2015. Ever since, they have acted as a north star for businesses, governments and organizations in our quest to make our planet a better place for us all. Journalist Chris Stokel-Walker takes a look at what progress is looking like – and the continuing value of the SDG’s in our changing world.

Chris Stokel-Walker, author, speaker and journalist

Chris Stokel-Walker


What are Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals form the backbone of the  – 169 targets across 17 interlinked objectives designed to ensure that our planet is peaceful, prosperous and safe for all people. The goals cover a range of areas, including eradicating poverty, ensuring access to clean water and sanitation, reducing inequalities, and providing affordable and clean energy

A big part of their value lies in giving us a globally shared focus, explains Merolyn Whitaker, chief operating officer of the University of Oxford’s SDG Impact Lab: “My personal view is that the real function around the SDGs is about creating common language, and setting targets and goals that mean we’re working towards something.

 “They aren’t perfect, but if we don’t have goals helping move us forward, we have no way of measuring our success or otherwise.”

Halfway there – is the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development on track?

It has been nearly 10 years since the SDGs were adopted, and we are roughly at the halfway point from when they were tabled in 2015 and the point at which the world hopes to meet those targets in 2030.

 “Are we on track to meet them?” asks Whitaker. “No, not remotely, because they’re huge.”

She explains that this is because the SDG’s are a vision of a “perfect world”, something to strive towards as opposed to something that we can necessarily realistically achieve.

Rather than measuring whether we’re on track to meet them, we should focus on how well we are progressing in implementing the principles behind the SDGs – which is something we are doing better at, says Whitaker.

“They help us aim for the future we want,” agrees Anna Aulakoski, Sustainability Manager at Neste, a global leader in the field of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, “it is important to pursue ambitious SDGs even if they can’t fully be reached.”

She adds: “It’s really challenging to get everybody on board in a changing world. The SDGs are a great way of actually bringing everyone together to reach for important common goals. 

“For example at Neste, our priority SDGs are linked to our own material sustainability topics assessed in the materiality analysis. Based on the identified material topics, we have reviewed and formed relevant sustainability KPIs. Our sustainability targets are integrated in our sustainability agenda along with SDGs to continue our sustainability work in a consistent and forward looking way.”

SDGs in the face of unprecedented global challenges

The war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, extreme climate events and the post-pandemic recovery – the onslaught of challenges on the world’s nations is currently significant. National priorities tend to take precedence over global solutions – and it can be easy for things such as SDGs to slip down the agenda and take a back seat.

This very concern was the focus of the recent  (ECOSOC) meeting held in New York in January.  highlights almost every key indicator falling backwards, as countries prioritize dealing with headwinds and challenges of their own.

But Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, told delegates that this was no reason to lose heart, but take stock and redouble our efforts to meet the moment.

Are Sustainable Development Goals still relevant?

Despite the challenges, Aulakoski firmly believes the SDGs continue to be relevant and have a purpose, not least because they’re accessible, understandable goals around which companies, organizations and governments can congregate to pull towards the same goal.

“It’s kind of like a no man’s land where everybody feels comfortable joining without jeopardizing their own standpoint,” she explains. “This is something everyone can find common ground on.”

Whitaker agrees that SDG’s remain an important catalyst for the change that is needed in our world. Going forward, she is advocating for leaner SDG reporting requirements to empower people within organizations to enact changes for better practises easier, without being slowed down by layers of bureaucracy.

Aulakoski concludes: “A lot of work needs to be done but the SDG’s provide something for everybody that they can work towards so we create a better world for our children.”


Chris Stokel-Walker, author, speaker and journalist whose work has appeared in BBC News, The New York Times and WIRED UK.