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Speed read

  • Advances in technology mean a goal to end poverty by 2030 would be realistic

  • But steps must be taken to ensure it is used beneficially

  • Policymakers appear to be rallying around a sustainable development approach

[PARIS] Rapid technological progress has made the elimination of worldwide poverty by 2030 a realistic goal for the post-2015 development agenda, but the challenge now is how best to use these advances, which can also harm sustainable development, says a report by a UN-backed science network.
 
Addressing this challenge must be a central question guiding the drafting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) report, published last week (6 June).
 
"Recent advances have made this goal technically realistic and it's overwhelming likely that SDGs will endorse this view," says SDSN's director Jeffrey Sachs, who is also the UN secretary-general's special advisor on the Millennium Development Goals.
 
The report, which was presented to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, states that new technologies, in particular information and communications technologies, will be essential for empowering low-income countries in a globalised world and providing basic services, such as healthcare, education and infrastructure.
 
Nonetheless, while science and technology are key to sustainable development, steps must be made to ensure they are used beneficially, adds the report.
 
It says that the accelerating extraction of climate-altering fossil fuels, made possible by technological advances, is a prime example of how progress can be a double-edged sword.
 
As well as helping to ensure that technology is used responsibly, the scientific community must also be influential in developing long-term strategies for meeting future SDG targets, adapting these to national and local contexts, designing indicators and monitoring progress, the report adds.
 
In future, the report says, all development activities must be guided by four core principles: the right to development; human rights and social inclusion; convergence of living standards; and shared responsibilities and opportunities.
 
It identifies ten priority challenges for sustainable development: ending extreme poverty; achieving development within planetary boundaries; ensuring quality education; achieving gender and social equality; fostering good health; improving agricultural systems; empowering inclusive and resilient cities; curbing climate change; securing ecosystem services and biodiversity while providing good resource management; and transforming governance to aid development.
 
With notable exceptions — such as the SDSN's decision to explicitly highlight climate change, cities and the recognition of planetary boundaries — these targets share many similarities with the recent report from the UN High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
 
This consistency across the two reports, which will be presented to world governments ahead of the UN General Assembly on 25 September, is promising, says Sachs.
 
The evidence of an increasing consensus within the development community is also reassuring, he adds. "There is a growing worldwide understanding that sustainable development will be the organising principle of the post-2015 agenda."
 
Gisbert Glaser, a senior science advisor at the International Council for Science (ICSU), in France, agrees that the signs that policymakers are rallying around an integrated sustainable development approach are "extremely promising".
 
By capturing the need for sustainable and equitable development well, the report is an important step, says Glaser, but the role of science is still being sidelined, he believes.
 
The definition and implementation of SDGs need to be underpinned by research on topics such as the risks of impacts of development, links between different areas, such as climate change, biodiversity and food security, and the important relationship between basic research and technological innovation.
 
Responding to this criticism, an SDSN spokesperson says the report's focus was on producing a framework for SDGs and that the network aims to work with partners in the future, such as Future Earth and ICSU, to develop a research agenda that will underpin the transformations highlighted by the report.
Link to SDSN report