‘Systemic greenwash’: Scientists call on UN to ditch sustainability goals

Exclusive: The letter was released as the United Nations begins a summit on disaster risks in Bali, Indonesia on Monday

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Thursday 26 May 2022 22:13 BST
'Climate report is a dismal litany of humanity’s failure': UN secretary-general

It’s time for the United Nations to drop their current model for tackling the world’s crises, according to a letter from 100 scientists, teachers and experts, shared exclusively with The Independent.

The experts are calling for the United Nations to abandon the “Sustainable Development Goals” — a group of 17 targets adopted in 2015 to tackle global social and environmental issues from hunger to climate change to economic growth.

The letter, released as the UN begins a summit on disaster risks in Bali, Indonesia on Monday, argues that the world’s problems cannot be solved through the same ideology that created them.

“If the way modern societies operate cause the problems that the SDGs seek to address, can we be surprised that those same systems are incapable of fixing them?” the letter reads.

The letter has been signed by researchers from 27 countries, all in a personal capacity and not as representatives of any institution.

Among the notable experts who have put their names to the letter are Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at Nasa who was arrested last month in a climate protest; Yves Cochet, France’s former Minister of Environment and Regional Planning; and Britt Wray, author of the recent climate anxiety book, Generation Dread.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are based on an ideology that values material and technological progress and prioritizes corporate interests - where “humanity will balance social, economic and environmental issues to progress materially,” Jem Bendell, a sustainability researcher at the University of Cumbria, told The Independent via email, citing a recent non-peer reviewed paper that he authored on the subject.

Dr Bendell called the SDGs a “systemic greenwash” that undermines “challenges to structural power.”

“Before now, it may have been convenient for politicians, bureaucrats and people in the organisations they fund, to maintain an upbeat message that more technology, capital and management will solve both poverty and environmental destruction,” the letter reads.

“However, the evidence from the UN’s own reports show clearly that is merely a convenient myth, and that billions of people would be better served by more sober analysis of the worsening situation,” it adds.

According to the UN, the SDGs were developed to end “poverty and other deprivations” while improving health and education, reducing inequality, spurring economic growth, tackling climate change and protecting natural habitats.

The letter calls on the UN to “drop the redundant and unhelpful ideology of Sustainable Development,” and move towards plans of local resilience and “de-growth of wealthy economies”.

A satire of the SDG logos, created by Dr Jem Bendell (Jem Bendell)

The world can’t separate resource use and pollution from economic growth enough to stave off catastrophic environmental disaster, Dr Bendell stated. He used the example of electrifying global infrastructure, a goal of many climate activists in order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Doing so would require a lot of natural resources — resources that we may not have, Dr Bendell stated. The implication, then, is that wealthy countries and individuals need to reduce their consumption, he added.

“Clearly that idea isn’t super appealing to the folks at Davos,” Dr Bendell added, referencing the annual meeting of high-powered business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum, which got underway on Sunday.

Other signatories to the letter shared similar sentiments.

"If governments keep heedlessly pursuing exponential economic growth at any cost - which empirically clearly requires growth in resources and pollution, including greenhouse gases - we will eventually collapse just like any other species,” said Dr Kalmus in a statement emailed to The Independent.

Lead signatories on the letter, all in a personal capacity:

Professor William Rees (University of British Columbia, Ecological Economics)

Dr Malika Virah-Sawhmy (IASS, Climate Adaptation)

Dr Peter Kalmus (NASA, Climate Science)

Dr Yves Cochet (Former Minister of the Environment, France)

Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau (LOABOWA, Climate Adaptation)

Dr Ye Tao (MEER Framework, Climate Adaptation)

Dr Sonja Kaiser (TUBAF, Earth System Modelling)

Professor Jem Bendell (University of Cumbria, climate adaptation)

Dr Clelia Sirami (INRAE, Ecology)

Dr Jeremy Jimenez (State University of New York, Education)

Dr Britt Wray (Stanford University, Psychology)

Dr Rupert Read (UEA, Philosophy)

The full list of signatories and text of the letter can be found here

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in