On April 25, 2015, a cataclysmic earthquake ravaged the city of Kathmandu, Nepal. In a matter of minutes, an already impoverished nation was burdened by a devastating calamity, one that killed nearly 9,000, forced many more to live in tent shelters, stunted development, and forced Nepal into a crisis. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the nation witnessed its poverty amplified to an extent where total recovery became a wish for the distant future. I have personally seen the state Nepal was in and continues to be in, and it is one that is lamentable.
Nepal’s grave predicament is only one of the plethora of crises a multitude of nations face today, and addressing such problems have become a paramount objective of the international community. Brought together by a common realization that heading toward the future without resolving the plights plaguing the present day was unhealthy for the planet and for its inhabitants, the United Nations drafted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and then the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of multilevel roadmaps that tackle a series of distinct yet intertwined issues including poverty, gender inequality, and environmental damage.
Today, however, the successful implementation of the 17 SDGs has been marred by complications. Efforts to eradicate poverty have been stunted by conflicts in Syria and famine in Yemen, among other issues. And with shifting political climates not only in the White House but also throughout the world, the fight for the preservation of the environment has become increasingly challenging.
After being exposed to sustainable development and the SDGs through an internship at the United Nations past summer, I conducted an exclusive email interview, on April 9, with Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, the world’s leading economist on sustainable development and one of the strongest proponents of the SDGs, to seek his expertise and insights on sustainable development.
Reporter: What are the SDGs?
Professor Sachs: The SDGs are the world’s commitment to sustainable development, meaning the combination of economic wellbeing, social justice, and environmental sustainability. The 17 SDGs direct us to these three bottom lines: economic, social, and environmental. All societies, rich and poor, should aim to achieve the SDGs. All rich countries should help the poor countries to achieve them by providing financing, technology, training, and other support. Students can read more about them here at http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html.”
Reporter: Could you put the dynamics between the economic, political, and social sectors under sustainable development in the context of a specific country?
Professor Sachs: To achieve sustainable development, countries need to pay attention to promoting prosperity through technology, promoting fairness through equal access to public services and support for the poor, and promoting environmental sustainability by adopting green technologies such as renewable energy. The countries that come closest to this today are the Scandinavian countries, namely Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. They do a wonderful job of achieving sustainable development in a democratic setting with a very low level of corruption and a high level of social trust and solidarity. An overall ranking of where countries stand on the path to the SDGs can be found at http://www.sdgindex.org/.
Reporter: In your lecture in Korea in May 2015, “The Age of Sustainable Development,” you stated that it was imperative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1.5 tons of CO2 per person per year by 2050. What are concrete steps nations and individuals can take to ensure such a dramatic reduction?
Professor Sachs: The entire world has agreed in the Paris Climate Agreement to keep global warming to well below 2-degrees Celsius, compared with the average Earth temperature before the start of industrialization (roughly around 1800). Already the Earth has warmed by 1.1 degrees C, and we are on a path of 3-degree C or more warming in the 21st century unless we dramatically decarbonize the world’s energy system. That means moving from coal, oil, and gas to wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass, and nuclear energy (all zero-carbon sources). Also, we will have to move from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric or fuel-cell vehicles. All of this will have to be accomplished very quickly, by mid-century.
Reporter: Given the changing political climate in not only the US but throughout the world, how optimistic is your outlook that the goals of the SDGs can be met in the given time frame?
Professor Sachs: We need to move forward despite the political difficulties. Civil society, including students (!) need to push governments to comply. The politicians are usually late! Too many are often corrupt, unfortunately, paying too much attention to big money and not to the welfare of the people. This is happening in the US, where the Republican Party takes money from the oil and gas industry, and then tries to delay decarbonization. We need to speak out for the common good and the well-being of future generations.
Reporter: What can nations and organizations do to promote the SDGs and their objectives to youths?
Professor Sachs: Governments need to plan how they will achieve the SDGs, and need to present a series of metrics that they will use to assess progress. Every year the government should report to the parliament and the public on the progress or the lack thereof. Businesses, students, scientists, religious leaders and others need to support the SDGs and help to keep our governments on track to achieve them. Young people can join SDSN Youth to get involved: http://unsdsn.org/get-involved/youth/
Reporter: You endorsed Oxfam’s inequality report, Reward Work, Not Wealth, which was presented at the 2018 World Economic Forum. What are the consequences of inequality? The report also urged the governments to work towards creating a ‘human economy.’ Please describe what a ‘human economy’ is.
Professor Sachs: Inequality not only creates social hardships and anxieties for those left behind, and real suffering for those stuck in poverty, but very high wealth (such as billionaires) tend to have far too much influence on politics. In the US, we are in the hands of several billionaires who are using their great wealth to turn the US political system to their private benefit at enormous social cost. We have to ensure that the economy and political system work for everybody, or as the UN says, “leaving no one behind.”
Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the Sustainable Development Goals, and previously advised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on both the Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Development Goals and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals. His work on reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and implementing the SDGs has been pivotal in shaping the future of the planet.