Have you ever wonder why the United Nations (UN) calls the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the Agenda 2030? Well, get in for a mildly adventurous ride through recent history to find out!
Our story starts in Stockholm in 1972. After nearly 10 years of environmental and social movements around the world, the United Nations finally acknowledged all these concerns at the Stockholm conference in 1972. Known as the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, it led to the UN setting up environmental ministries around the world and establishing the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The Stockholm Conference became the central catalyst for creating
- The Brundtland Commission
- Agenda 21
- Millennium Development Goals; and
- Sustainable Development Goals
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Pre-Agenda 21 – The Brundtland Era (1983-1987)
After the dust had settled from UN’s Stockholm conference, everything almost went back to normal. The conference almost felt like a fan service, an act to simply please the environmental and social movement audience. While some of these challenges and issues were being addressed by the newly formed UNEP team, it was nowhere near good enough. Countries were still predominantly focusing on economic growth instead of environmental and social development. As the global public frustration of the UN’s inadequacy started bubbling up again, the UN created the Brundtland Commission in 1983 to
- Save the environment and natural resources; and
- Prevent the deterioration of economic and social development
What a smash hit this was. The commission produced an iconic report in 1987 called the “Our Common Future” where they popularised the term ’sustainable development’. It was the first report to clearly articulate why sustainable development is critical and how world nations can achieve sustainable development.
Agenda 21 – First Global Goal on Sustainable Development
The Brundtland Commission wanted to end on a high note, so they immediately dissolved after publishing their report “Our Common Future”. However, the UN was not ready to give up the momentum that they had just gained. They wanted to turn this sustainable development buzz into something more meaningful. Thus in 1989, the UN set out on a long journey to build on the success of Brundtland’s report. After 3 years of writing, drafting, consultation and negotiation, the UN finally created an action plan known as the Agenda 21.
Thrilled with their hard work, the proud UN presented the Agenda 21 in Rio de Janeiro on the 13th June of 1992. Agenda 21 was a non-binding action plan for countries to execute sustainable development at a local, national and international level. It was called the Agenda 21 because the UN assembly wanted to achieve its sustainable development targets by 2021. The 351-page action plan was divided into 4 sections (source)
- SECTION I: Social and Economic Dimensions
- SECTION II: Conservation and Management of Resources for Development
- SECTION III: Strengthening the Role of Major Groups
- SECTION IV: Means of Implementation
Agenda 21 was off to a great start; it received a truly great reception from the UN’s member countries. 178 governments voted to adopt the UN’s first global plan. However, its implementation was not smooth at all. In fact, it ran into many roadblocks:
- Since it was a non-binding action plan, many governments failed to take it seriously.
- Due to lack of funding, the UN Task Managers could not effectively monitor the implementation of the action plan overseas
- Global problems were starting to pile up – consumption inequality, financial crisis and the HIV/AIDs pandemic was running rampant.
The world was just not ready to accept sustainable development, yet. The UN realised that they might need to address immediate development concerns such as hunger, poverty, education and HIV/AIDs first. So, Agenda 21 was eventually put on a back burner. However, Agenda 21 never truly went away. It was always part of UN’s global conference of Rio+5 (1997), Rio+10 (2002) and Rio+20 (2012).
Finally, in 2012, the UN decided that enough was enough. The world needed sustainable development whether it liked it or not. Climate change related issues were starting to become a serious threat. The UN would turn to their first action plan one last time. They would go on to use the foundation of Agenda 21 to modify its goal, agenda and deadline. The world would come to know this “Agenda 2030″ as the SDGs.