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One of the most aspiring and comprehensive sustainability roadmaps that has ever been drawn up, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are rooted in a commitment to providing peace and prosperity for all people and the planet we share. 

The 17 Goals offer a broad set of initiatives that demand immediate action while highlighting the need to build ongoing programs and infrastructure that will provide benefits well into the future. At the core of these goals is a call towards global partnerships that acknowledge achieving one target is contingent on the realization of others. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (of which the 17 SDGs are a part) urges governments, organizations, and individuals worldwide to commit to ending practices that cause deprivation and inequality, in addition to mobilizing efforts that improve health and education, spur economic growth, and tackle the issue of climate change and environmental destruction.

How were the SDGs developed?

An ambitious vision for a better world, the SDGs were formulated in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Together in collaboration, several of the world’s top leaders in sustainable development outlined a set of universal goals intended to address the urgent environmental, political, and economic challenges facing our world. The SDGs owe much to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and are meant to serve as their successor. 

Developed on the cusp of a new millennium, the MDGs drove progress in areas including poverty, water and sanitation, infant mortality, and maternal health. They also helped launch a global movement for free primary education, motivating countries worldwide to prioritize investing in their future generations. The MDGs also made considerable strides in combating HIV/AIDS and other treatable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

How are the SDGs being realized?

Picking up the torch and building on the MDGs’ success, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals also emphasize these objectives’ interrelated nature. Currently, the Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) oversees the SDGs, providing substantive support and capacity-development. DSDG plays a vital role in evaluating UN system-wide implementation of the 2030 Agenda and on advocacy and outreach activities relating to the SDGs.

How can schools, students, and teachers help?

“Education can, and must, contribute to a new vision of sustainable global developments.” (UNESCO, 2015) 

Making the 2030 Agenda a reality will require robust commitment from all stakeholders. Working in concert with governments, the private sector, and civil society, students have a pivotal role to play in generating creative, sustainable initiatives and ensuring no one is left behind. 

The knowledge, skills, and values needed to be a sustainability changemaker are developed at school, and education that focuses on the cultivation of relevant attributes is crucial for sustainable development. Following Education for Sustainable Development, students are best served by programs designed to develop competencies that empower them to reflect on their actions and consider their current and future social, cultural, economic, and environmental impacts from a local and a global perspective. 

Programs such as the IBDP Core are a powerful force in realizing sustainable initiatives, as they go beyond supplying content on these issues. To maintain an ongoing awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals, students require action-oriented tasks that nurture their strategic competencies, critical thinking skills, and ability to collaborate. In developing concrete plans that seek to tackle the 17 SDGs, students can collectively develop and implement innovative actions that further sustainability at the local level and further afield. 

Regarding the first goal of eradicating poverty, as an example, meaningful and dynamic actions could include developing partnerships between schools in different regions of the world, running awareness campaigns about poverty, or hosting a student fair selling fair trade projects. Students could also be encouraged to implement local service-learning and engagement opportunities to empower poor people and reduce their vulnerability in the local community. 

In a broader context, schools can provide pathways for their students to engage in existing initiatives, such as the Online Model United Nations. OMUN is a unique online debating platform open to any high school student who desires to collaborate and discuss the world’s most pressing issues. 

From inquiry-based projects to case studies and targeted internships, there are so many ways for young people to get involved, increase their knowledge, and reflect on their role in the local community and global society. There are also plenty of resources related to the UN SDGs available for teachers that will enable them to better guide students in taking meaningful action.

Over the coming months, we will be featuring the 17 SDGs individually and offering ideas and resources for students and educators to explore in working towards their realization.