Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Sustainability starts with self


There are 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN for the world to try and reach by 2030. From the day they came into force at the beginning of 2016, it gives us 15 years to sort a few things out. But the things that need sorting out are not small matters – among them are feeding the world, solving social injustice, ending poverty and combatting climate change. Surely big issues like these are jobs for scientists and governments - the average person can’t do much - can they?

Actually, science can’t solve these things for us. It can shed light, provide insight and give us the tools but it will never offer a magic bullet. It is down to human beings,” says Professor Dave Griggs, a world leading expert in sustainable development and director of the Institute for Global Sustainable Development at The University of Warwick.

"Science has an important role to play but it is people that must make it happen and as for governments – they can lead, suggest and persuade or levy, tax and impose, but ultimately we need to act as individuals. We all have an obligation to make small differences for ourselves but also for our children and our grandchildren or we will leave them with a seriously bad inheritance," he adds.

Professor Griggs holds a professorial chair at both Warwick and Monash University in Australia. Along with other experts, he was on the panel negotiating the 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators which make up the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The goals were launched in January 2016 and followed on from the eight Millennium Goals set in the year 2000.

“We have made progress,” says Professor Griggs. “Since the Millennium Goals were set we have seen, for example, a reduction in poverty and an increase in the numbers of children in education globally. But we have more work to do. Sustainable development is realistic and possible. It is about making changes – and importantly – taking people with you.

Reliance on the old system

“We’ve just seen an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in three years. Areas of the world are still talking about ‘clean coal’ and the possibility of carbon capture – where you carry on using the old fuels and you use technology to capture and bury the carbon dioxide. It’s feasible – but the cost is sky high. Why not change to renewables which have been proven to be so much cheaper and efficient?

“The problem is if you are reliant on an old system, it’s cheaper in the short term to carry on using it than paying to replace it, and the local population where the ‘old system’ is a big employer will be against change.

“We need to start making these important long term decisions though – the key is persuading people to change. If you are in a coal producing area and the local economy relies on this one industry then there is no social justice in closing down the mines and leaving the area desolate. We have the moral responsibility to enact change but also regenerate the area reliant on the old industry. Reinvest, retrain, re-educate, and regenerate. It’s about how you do it. It can be done – and it can be done well.

“Inevitably there will be winners and losers, and change can be scary. But developing sustainably means making good long term decisions for the global population but making them work in the short term for local communities.”

Individual effort

It takes real conviction to act alone in an effort to solve world problems though. But Professor Griggs thinks we need to talk more about the individual’s part in an international effort.

“It’s easy to think ‘I’m not going to make a difference on my own’ and use it as an excuse not to do something like your weekly recycling, or switching off the lights– but that is a bit of a cop out. I’m not perfect either – we all do things we know we shouldn’t. But everyone can play their part in moving the world towards these targets. We can all take steps towards gender equality, or better education – by learning ourselves or encouraging our kids. We can all take responsibility for our own health in terms of diet and vaccinations. And these things all play their part in helping to achieve the goals the UN set in 2015.”

8 January 2018

Professor Dave GriggsProfessor Dave Griggs is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Warwick in the UK and Monash University in Australia.

He is the founding professor of Warwick's Institute for Global Sustainable Development and provides strategic oversight of the academic direction of Institute activities. His own research focusses on the essential interlinked nature of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how consideration of this is required for optimal implementation of the SDGs.

Infographic: 17 Sustainable Development Goals from UN with vector images for each:

1) No Poverty
2) Zero Hunger
3) Good Health and Wellbeing
4) Quality Education
5) Gender Equality
6) Clean Water and Sanitation
7) Affordable and Clean Energy
8) Decent Work and Economic Growth
9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10) Reduced Inequalities
11) Sustainable Cities and Communities
12) Responsible Consumption and Production
13) Climate Action
14) Life Below Water
15) Life on Land
16) Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
17) Partnerships for the Goals

Terms for republishing
The text in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).

Creative Commons License