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Have we made any progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?

23 May 2023

A recent ICE policy roundtable in the United Arab Emirates explored how a sustainable approach to infrastructure can deliver for future generations.

Have we made any progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 proactively embeds the UN SDGs in decision making. Image credit: Shutterstock

Sustainable development is critical to avoid economic, environmental, and social collapse.

It also ensures that we don’t compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a blueprint for achieving a better future. They address global challenges, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

In September 2023, world leaders will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to review the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs.

At a recent policy roundtable in the United Arab Emirates, the ICE convened senior stakeholders from across infrastructure and construction to explore how the SDGs are informing infrastructure development.

Has the world given up on sustainable development?

Progress against the SDGs has slowed or even reversed in recent years.

The SDG progress index highlights “major challenges” in achieving one or more goals in most countries, including those in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the UK, progress in some areas – for example, reducing inequalities – has gone backwards.

The implications of failing to build a more sustainable world are becoming more and more apparent:

  • soaring food prices
  • protests and strikes over wages
  • extreme weather events
  • mass migration between countries
  • an increase in political instability
  • more global pandemics and country epidemics

ICE President Keith Howells’s inaugural address set out the importance of delivering for the next generation, with real examples of how infrastructure and the SDGs are interconnected.

How do we prevent future pandemics and cost of living crises?

The world is steadily recovering from Covid-19, with the World Health Organisation recently downgrading its assessment of the virus.

However, new challenges are emerging, such as a cost-of-living crisis driven by high inflation resulting from disrupted supply chains and the war in Ukraine.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres outlined the necessary recovery path forward: “I urge you to work with your governments to put people first in their budgets and recovery plans”.

As part of recovery, a greater focus on sustainable development is essential.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also urged nations to progress sustainable development, climate mitigation, and climate adaptation simultaneously – not see them as exclusive efforts.

How are governments looking after future generations?

Some governments are taking a proactive approach to embedding the SDGs into their decision making, including those on infrastructure development.

Positive examples include Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Malaysia’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, Japan’s SDG Action Plan and Implementation Guiding Principles, and Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Civil engineers and infrastructure professionals are also playing their part. The roundtable shone a light on how professionals are picking up the baton.

Delivery partners are increasingly engaging at a more strategic level, rather than just ‘delivering a brief’.

They are also drawing on examples from around the world to highlight the impact of decisions and how that compares to other countries.

Infrastructure is an investment, not a cost

Governments are starting to understand the concept of whole-life costs.

Short-term thinking, especially around costs, leaves countries behind economically due to the need to retrofit or upgrade assets.

Meanwhile, countries that planned for the longer term motor ahead.

Conversations with governments have also moved away from cost reduction to revenue maximisation.

Infrastructure assets provide services for the public; it’s their use, not their cost, which is most important.

Governments are also thinking about the resale or concession value of assets, where applicable.

By making assets more sustainable, they aim to make assets more bankable in the future.

This is better aligning medium-term thinking with sustainable development.

Optioneering – the in-depth consideration of various construction alternatives – has also broadened to think not about building more, but using less. We need to work with nature rather than against it.

Concepts such as 15-minute cities are helping drive this discussion where new settlements are in development.

Building the foundations for a sustainable future

While it was positive to hear so many examples of change, some basic building blocks are also needed. The roundtable concluded that:

  • Leadership and vision are important at infrastructure client and government levels.
  • Some companies are making big decisions on their own and taking risks. What would happen if others followed suit?
  • We need to focus on translating SDGs into delivery through the weighting of incentives in contracts to favour sustainable development and innovation.
  • Things are interconnected. A whole-system approach is important.
  • All parts of the supply chain have a role to play. We need to treat each other with respect, as we’re all part of the solution.

Finally, civil engineers and infrastructure professionals can make a huge difference.

Of the SDG targets, 72% are linked to networked infrastructure development.

This means the profession can play a leading role in economic growth, environmental protection, social progress, and climate resilience.

We want to hear from you

How can the SDGs better inform governments’ processes for infrastructure planning and development? Let us know by emailing your thoughts to [email protected].

Don’t forget, you can sign up to ICE Informs to keep up to date on the ICE’s policy and influencing activities.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers