Some things may seem like a very good idea at the time. Yet despite everyone trying very hard, the result is downright disappointing. That then begs the question whether the idea was good in the first place.

That is more or less what has happened with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs). A beaded necklace of 17 sustainable goals to be achieved for and by the whole world by 2030 and embraced seven and a half years ago by the United Nations, that have become an inherent part of our sustainability ambitions.

We are exactly halfway now. But we are not really getting anywhere, because for two years in a row, there has been no progress on a global scale. COVID-19 caused things to stall, and ecological boundaries are increasingly being breached. No one believes that the goals will be reached by 2030. Apart from illustrating that it is hard to make the world more sustainable, it shows that the SDGs have major flaws that need to be corrected to make them work.

These flaws are the denial of complexity and cohesion, the blindness to potential trade-offs, and the illusion that sustainability can be engineered.

Seventeen goals with umpteen sub goals is just an unfeasibly high number. The essence of the SDGs is that they are all intertwined. This requires us to recognise that the world is complex and that, if we want to pursue a more sustainable world, we should embrace that complexity and be accountable on all SDGs. And that is where it goes wrong when governments or the corporate sector reduce the beaded necklace to a little bracelet with just the odd bead. That allows them to ‘choose’ those goals that happen to suit them, because they reflect what they are already doing. It still looks nice and sustainable but change and cohesion are out of the window. Especially in the financial sector, we see all kinds of SDG-embracing without redirecting financial flows. What is the win then?

The second flaw concerns trade-offs. It is simply not possible to reach all the goals. We, the rich countries, achieve our relatively strong social score at the cost of a sustainable future and at the cost of poorer countries. And given that total economic activity in the world is already too great for our planet to bear, there is of course no way that any further increase in that activity (as more or less embedded in several goals) could be compatible with ecological goals. Trade-offs demand that choices are made and that is facilitated by having a raking of goals.

A third flaw of the SDGs is the idea that sustainability can be engineered. The idea that as long as we invest in technology and growth, all will be well. Some growth and some technologies do indeed contribute to a sustainable future, but very often they have the opposite effect.

Should we then get rid of those SDGs? In this way, yes. Because what is the use of goals that are unreachable and quickly turn into a lucky dip for greenwashers?

To me, unambiguity and enforceability seem a lot more useful for this world. Not a beaded necklace, but three rings, ranging from large to small, indicating the hierarchy. The largest: to reduce the world economy to a size that fits within the boundaries of our planet. The middle ring: to end poverty. And the smallest ring: let’s just be nice to each other. That last one may well prove to present the biggest challenge.

This is a translation of Hans Stegeman's column in Het Financieele Dagblad, published June 7th, 2022.

Also read Hans' previous column 'A little less now gives us much more future'.