End poverty, protect the climate, equality, leaving no one behind. The content of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sounds just right, but how do you get there? Many have racked their brains over this, including Marc Buckley. He has been appointed by the UN as an advocate for the SDGs. In this first of a two-part interview he talks about his role and how the SDGs are really to be understood.
Pia Hettinger (PH): Marc, you are an advocate for the SDGs. How do you get that title?
I have been committed to sustainability and climate protection for a long time. I was already following the Millennium Development Goals and was involved under the leadership of Professor Jeffrey Sachs. This was followed by the various climate conferences. Significant, of course, was COP21 in Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, I gave a presentation on the SDGs at the UN in Bonn. Just before the end of my speech, Ban Ki Moon came on stage and put a pin on my jacket – from then on, I was officially in. Ban Ki Moon is a very kind person and a Global Citizen. He does a lot of good for humanity and that even after he gave up the office in 2017 as Secretary General of the United Nations to António Guterres.
PH: What does it take to become an advocate for the SDGs?
I think someone who talks about sustainability has to be strong in three areas.
- He must understand economic systems in depth. It is important that he not only knows the prevailing models, but also the possible alternatives. As an example, I would like to mention Hermann Daly or Tim Jackson, two economists who have worked on the question of what an economy without growth looks like that is also ecological. I would say ecological economics is the best.
- He has to know about sustainable innovation. By that I don’t just mean developing a nutrition app, but innovations with the purpose of solving real problems – like a cure for malaria. With its certification system the DGNB currently offers the best standard that exists in the world for building. These are tools that solve problems. We need to use these now. Because everything is developing so fast, and we are slow as a snail because we are only debating.
- He must be a futurist! I must be able to imagine well what the future can look like. Then it’s a matter of creating a roadmap for that future. For example, scientists set the 2-degree target and then ran through thousands of scenarios of what needs to be done to reach that target. Then, at the last minute, they agreed on the 1.5˚C target at COP21 in Paris.
My goal is for people to understand what a 2030 world can look like if all 17 goals are met. I want them to understand what that feels like. That’s why I wrote the UN SDG Manifesto.
PH: Let’s move on to the SDGs: who do they apply to?
They are intended for each person individually. They describe the basic needs of humanity. But you can also apply them in organizations or at the country level. We need to understand that we live in symbiosis with our planet.
PH: That means they are purely intrinsically motivated. Or are there also obligations?
The SDGs are not an obligation. It’s a voluntary thing whether a country implements the plan by 2030. I think that’s rather a shame. The attitude of “I’ll only do it if everyone does it or if we are committed to it” is a trap. When Trump walked out of the Paris climate agreement, some states still committed to the SDGs and the climate agreement. You have to understand that compliance leads to good.
All the organizations, cities and countries that have already internalized that and are in the process of implementing the goals have survived the pandemic and the economic consequences better. I want people to say “Wow, this is the way I should have lived or run my company much earlier. It is the better model for the future.”
PH: The SDGs are easy to read and understand at first glance. No one would dispute that ending poverty is important. But isn’t there more to it than that?
I think the biggest misconception is that people see the goals as an add-on to their business-as-usual. They cherry-pick the four goals that are easiest to integrate into their business model. If you do it that way, at the same moment you’re hurting the other SDGs. They all belong together. In the same way, all the goals are addressed in the building sector. A good building includes clean water, clean air, a garden, infrastructure, public mobility, nutrition, innovations in the surrounding area – all of these have an effect on all 17 goals.
Our world operates in complex, dynamic systems. We need to move away from a linear view of the world and need a systems approach, or a dynamic approach. Take this analogy: our body is made up of eleven complex systems, all working together in complete harmony. None of these systems alone controls the whole body, but if one fails and you get sick, the other systems compensate – it’s a complex ecosystem.
PH: There is, after all, the so-called Wedding Cake model – a hierarchical reading of the SDGs….
Shortly before the official publication of the SDGS, Professor Rockstrom and partners presented this model. Ban Ki Moon thought it was good, however it was too late to get this into the publication. The pie model states that the biosphere is the base, that is where all the resources we need to live come from. If this is not maintained, the basic needs of the next level, the social level, cannot be met. This in turn is the basis for a functioning economy.
PH: What are the limits of the goals?
I often experience that many people first want to refute what the SDGs can do. I can only say: We are in the middle of the climate crisis, we now have 2022 and still 8 years to achieve the goals. We have to put all our energy into implementation. We have to start now!
In the second part of the interview, we talk about the status quo, green washing, the role of the construction sector and where the journey is headed.
Marc Buckley has studied global environmental and sustainability studies, business administration, computer science, law, economics and agronomy. He advises the United Nations and is one of the first climate activists trained by Al Gore. He is part of the World Economic Forum’s network of experts on innovation, climate change, agriculture and food. And he advises companies on implementing sustainability into their processes and gives speeches around the world. He has also founded a food company himself. Most importantly, he is an SDG advocate, and that’s what we were particularly interested in. He was born in the USA and grew up partly in Germany. Today he lives in Hamburg and is involved in projects worldwide.
Cover photo Credits: Creative Commons, photographer Karsten Eichhorn