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October 5, 2017

Sustainable development depends on linking people and the planet. Thirty years after “Our Common Future” we must not miss the opportunity provided by the Global Goals to connect our environmental and development work. Photo: © CC BY NC ND Allison Kwesell / World Bank

Sustainable development is thirty years old. It was born in 1987 with the release of the “Our Common Future” report, which declared: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

There has been some progress since that time, but millions of children still become ill from dirty air and dirty water, tens of millions of people are displaced by disasters, and climate change threatens to undo the gains we have made against poverty. It’s clear there is more work to do.

The good news is that the international community took a giant step in the right direction in 2015 by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Creating a thriving planet where every person can live with dignity lies at the heart of both agreements.

Importantly, the Global Goals recognize that the well-being of people and of the planet are connected. We cannot reach our goal of a world without poverty and injustice unless we integrate environmental sustainability into our development framework. The Global Goals do this. Environmental protection figures prominently among them – including clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), affordable and clean energy (Goal 7), life below water (Goal 14), life on land (Goal 15), and, of course, climate change (Goal 13).

This focus on environmental sustainability is welcome. Frankly, it is long overdue. It may matter politically to countries setting budgets, policy, or legislative priorities, whether an issue is framed as an environmental or development effort – but it doesn’t matter substantively.

Promoting sustainable transport, for example, serves both the development and environmental agendas across the Goals. Private and public investment will seek returns regardless of whether investments are driven by a country’s national climate plan or by its ambition for the Goals. Moreover, the SDGs are purposefully integrated: progress to meet one target will help us to reach others as well.

As the body tasked with supporting five United Nations environmental conventions, the Global Environment Facility, under the leadership of Naoko Ishii, will play a key role in linking sustainability and development, and supporting implementation of the Global Goals.

For more than two decades, the Facility has tackled complex, interdependent issues in an integrated way. It has: brought together a network of United Nations agencies, investment banks, national governments, civil society groups, and other partners to work on environmental issues; provided strategic financial investments to projects that support a healthier world; supported multi-stakeholder alliances to preserve threatened ecosystems and to promote clean energy, green cities, and food security; and helped lay the foundation of a more prosperous, climate-resilient world. Integrated planning is set to become even more central in the Facility’s next replenishment.

As countries consider implementing multilateral environmental agreements, they must also think about how their plans will help meet the Goals. Many of the agreements covered by the Facility have developed action programmes that connect their specific environmental mandate (biodiversity, climate, desertification, etc.) to sustainable development, thus strengthening the link between them and the Global Goals.

The Facility is already mobilizing action toward achieving the Goals. Examples include supporting global and regional multilateral agreements that deal with international waters or transboundary water systems, as well as helping countries move to a low-emission development path and increase their resilience and adaptation to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Possibly less obviously, the Facility is also engaged in non-environmental goals, like Goal 2 on eradicating hunger. It supports countries’ efforts to prevent land degradation through sustainable management and to safeguard the natural resources that underpin food and nutrition security.

United Nations member states have the primary responsibility for delivering on the Goals, but the United Nations and institutions like the Facility will be critical to providing support for truly integrated sustainable development, including assisting countries with cohesive planning, avoiding duplication, and maximizing the effectiveness of their investments. United Nations Secretary- General António Guterres has made integrated sustainable development a key priority, including through strengthening the United Nations Development System.

Thirty years after “Our Common Future,” we must not miss the opportunity provided by the Global Goals to connect our environmental and development work, so that we can reach a world in which people and the planet thrive. Strong global support for institutions like the Facility will help make that happen.

by Kathy Calvin, President and Chief Executive Officer, United Nations Foundation


This article originally appeared in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine. The magazine was launched at the GEF-7 2nd replenishment meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.