UN Sustainable Development Goals

If there’s one thing the world can agree on, it’s that we have many challenges to overcome. From climate change to poverty and healthcare, there is no shortage of issues humans need to tackle to make the world a better place for all. The United Nations established 17 Sustainable Development Goals that, according to the United Nations, 

UN Sustainable Development Goals UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Table of contents

    “[provide] a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” 1

    In this article, we’ll give an overview of what the Sustainable Development goals are, their background, and their significance today.

    Overview of UN Sustainable Development Goals

    The current UN Sustainable Development Goals evolved from the Millennium Development Goals, a similar set of international development goals agreed upon in 2000, to be met by 2015. In 2015, the current UN Sustainable Development Goals were established, with the hope that all goals will be met by the year 2030. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from ending all poverty to creating gender equality.

    UN Sustainable Development Goals, 17 goals diagram, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Illustration of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

    The overarching idea behind the Sustainable Development Goals is to create a set of aims that allows humanity to coexist peacefully for years to come. This aligns with the United Nation’s overall mission of promoting international cooperation and peace. In September 2015, all 193 member nations of the UN General Assembly voted to approve the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Main Characteristics of UN SDGs

    Each Sustainable Development Goals contains certain indicators and metrics that are used to see how much progress is being made on that goal.

    Goal and Target

    The Sustainable Development Goal itself is either something relatively specific like Goal 1: no poverty, or broader like Goal 10: reduced inequalities. Each of these goals has several targets, essentially a series of sub-goals meant to help achieve the SDG. For example, Goal 10 has the target of adopting wage and social protection policies worldwide. Targets help to further define the SDG and are especially useful to clarify the intent of the vaguer goals.


    Every goal and target also comes with a set of indicators, which are metrics to evaluate progress on the target. Goal 1's indicators include the percentage of the population living below the poverty line and whether people are allowed access to social welfare systems regardless of who they are.

    The key characteristic of indicators is that they are generally quantifiable, meaning able to be measured using a number. The UN has defined where they want each of the indicators to be by 2030, and it’s key in determining whether countries have met the targets and goals. Presently, there are 231 total indicators for all 17 SDGs.


    Because every UN member nation signed the Sustainable Development Goals, every nation is also reviewed on its progress towards achieving the 17 goals. Experts from around the world look at statistics and available data to see what progress is being made toward reaching the SDGs.

    This work is no easy task because much of the data can be unavailable, unreliable, and simply tedious to obtain from all 193 countries. Some metrics, however, like GDP and GDP per capita are easily obtained and there’s a standardized way of measuring them. These kinds of indicators are considered Tier 1. Tier 2 indicators have a standardized way of measuring them but are not easily obtained. Finally, Tier 3 indicators do not have a standard for measuring them and are not easily obtained.

    Importance of UN Sustainable Development Goals

    Now that we’ve gone over some of the main characteristics of UN SDGs, let’s discuss the importance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


    The main importance of UN Sustainable Development goals is right in its title: sustainability!

    'Sustainability' gets bandied about a lot in discussions about the environment, but it means more than just ensuring our planet has a brighter future. It’s one thing to make great improvements to living standards, but another to make sure that those standards can be maintained for years to come. The SDGs aim to ensure that lives around the world are improved not just temporarily but to make sure there is lasting prosperity.

    International Cooperation

    Creating the Sustainable Development Goals was an exercise in international cooperation, and that cooperation is also a key to ensuring their success. It took several months to develop the SDGs, and representatives from around the world participated in that process. Being able to cooperate on a global scale is fundamental to sustainability as well. Many issues like climate change impact us all and without being able to cooperate, any solution would be virtually impossible. In short, the SDGs are significant for promoting and maintaining international cooperation.

    UN Sustainable Development Goal of Education

    Promoting education is much more than just ensuring everyone can go to school. It also includes teaching important skills and knowledge to those who are long finished with formal schooling. We can break down the UN Sustainable Development Goal of Education into formal education and public awareness.

    Formal Education

    Goal 4: Quality Education is the SDG dedicated to ensuring that everyone has educational opportunities, from preschool to college and beyond. Access to education is limited in many parts of the world, and the building of schools, hiring of teachers, and providing supplies are key to expanding access. Ensuring that everyone can attend school regardless of race, gender, or class is also essential; a place with plenty of schools but only accessible to a privileged few is not sustainable.

    Like most SDGs, Goal 4 has synergy with plenty of other goals, especially with Goal 1: No Poverty. Children around the world are forced to leave school to work and provide for their families, and eliminating poverty can significantly reduce the need for this and bring more children into the school system.

    Formal education doesn’t just include children, however, and Goal 4 includes provisions to bring technical and vocational training to adults as well. Teaching skilled and semi-skilled labor to a population helps boost its economic growth and provides opportunities to those who want a change in job and potential for higher pay.

    UN Sustainable Development goals, Indian schoolchildren, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Schoolchildren in southern India

    Public Awareness

    Education goes far beyond the classroom. Ensuring the public is knowledgeable about good health practices, their rights, and opportunities available to them is also key to achieving nearly every Sustainable Development Goal. Take SDG Goal 3: Good Health and Well Being. While building hospitals and having doctors is essential, so much of our health comes down to our own knowledge. Being able to identify when it’s necessary to get medical health, knowing safe ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and knowing to get vaccinated are all things reliant upon good public health awareness.

    Affordable and Clean Energy Sustainable Development Goal

    We need energy for everything. Turning on the lights and powering our vehicles and transit systems affordably and in a green way is a huge factor in ensuring a sustainable future. UN Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy aims to map out exactly how we can achieve that by 2030. Fossil fuel emissions are the principal contributor to climate change, so curbing their use and promoting renewable energy is key to ensuring a healthy future. Not only essential to helping stem the impacts of climate change, affordable and sustainable energy is also important to eliminating poverty and generating economic growth.

    UN Sustainable Development Goals, Wind farm, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Renewable energy sources like wind provide sustainable solutions to our energy needs

    Energy does not just include electricity, and also means what we use to power our vehicles and even cook our food. Many people in the world still use wood-burning stoves to cook food, and it’s very harmful to our health and the environment. Getting everyone off of using wood-burning stoves to something like electric burners powered by renewable energy can help promote a more sustainable future for the environment and human health.

    UN Sustainable Development Goals Examples

    As we previously discussed, there are several UN Sustainable Development Goals that address poverty, health, and energy. There are various other examples of UN Sustainable Development Goals, including promoting clean water, creating more responsible industrial processes, and making our cities more prosperous. One area in which much of the world is improving is the elimination of poverty. While the world does suffer setbacks during events like recessions and pandemics, overall the rate of extreme poverty has been trending downwards for decades.

    However, progress toward reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss has not been moving in a positive direction, with most metrics showing environmental conditions worsening. In all, there has been mixed progress toward the UN SDGs, but there is still time to turn things around by 2030.

    Check out our explanations on each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for more in-depth info!

    UN Sustainable Development Goals - Key takeaways

    • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are 17 goals that need to be achieved by 2030 to ensure a prosperous future for all.
    • The 17 goals include things like eliminating poverty, promoting clean energy, and providing educational opportunities for all.
    • Current progress on the goals is mixed, but the goals are incredibly important for making sure humanity can thrive for years to come.


    1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 'The 17 goals.' Sdgs.un.org/goals. no date.
    Frequently Asked Questions about UN Sustainable Development Goals

    What are the main characteristics of the SDGs?

    The main characteristics of the UN Sustainable Development Goals are the goal, target, and indicator. The goal is the overarching aim or ideal to be achievedTargets are more specific sub-goals in support of reaching the goal. Finally, indicators are the quantifiable metrics to determine whether the targets are being achieved.

    What is the main objective of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN?

    The main objective of the UN SDGs is to promote a more sustainable future for the world. A series of 17 goals were laid out with the hope that by 2030 the world will be on a better trajectory towards lasting peace and prosperity for all humans.

    What are the 3 main focuses of UN sustainable development?

    There are many focuses of the UN Sustainable Development goals, but generally they include human health, environmental sustainability, economic progress, and global cooperation. 

    What is the importance of UN sustainable development?

    The importance of UN sustainable development is that it helps create a blueprint for a more successful and sustainable future for all humankind. Humans are beset by numerous issues that threaten our very existence, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a good foundation for ensuring a better future. Furthermore, the spirit of international cooperation inherent in the goals is important to confronting all other issues we face, and any more to come in the future.

    How can Sustainable Development Goals be achieved?

    Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be no easy task, but a series of targets and indicators are laid out to help understand what needs to be done in order to achieve the goals. The UN also has a review process of the indicators to make sure countries are on track to reach the goals.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following are characteristics of UN SDGs?

    From 2015 to 2020 what percentage of the world population gained access to safely managed drinking water?

    How many targets are there that SDG 6 aims to achieve by 2030?

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