Why 2015 Will Be a Huge Year for Humanity

Years that shake up the international system do not come around that often. Think: 1945, 1968, 1989, 2000 and 2001.

2015 may be one of those years.

In 2015 there will be two huge opportunities to shape the course of human history for decades to come. The first will come at the United Nations Summit in September when the international community decides what will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire at the end of 2015. The second comes two months later when delegates in Paris convene for a once and final opportunity to secure an internationally binding climate change deal. Taken together these two moments will be exceedingly consequential to the planet and to the lives of the vast majority of the 7 billion people who inhabit it.

The MDGs expire in 2015, and if the international community can get its act together in time they will be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals at the 70th UN General Assembly in New York. To understand why the SDGs could have such a profound consequence one needs to examine the success of the MDGs. They created a concrete set of targets around which the international community rallied and in the process captured the imagination of the world and attention of policy makers. Some of these targets were met: the top goal of reducing extreme poverty by half was achieved in 2005 (largely due to the rise of China and India); and the goal of halving the proportion of the people without access to safe drinking water was achieved in 2010. Other goals are on target to be achieved next year, such as halting and reversing Malaria and Tuberculosis. Some goals probably will not be met in time, like universal access to modern contraception.

Despite uneven progress across these goals and across regions, the act of creating a common set of aspirational goals around which the world coalesced was seen as a profound success. The data back up these claims. So, about two years ago the international community began a process of figuring out what the international development agenda should look like once the MDGs expire in 2015.  After a series of formal dialogues, special panels, UN working groups and a massive global public survey the UN has finally honed in on a working draft of what these SDGs should include.

The current draft includes 17 goals and 169 targets–and taken together these are far more ambitious and wide reaching than the MDGs. As the name suggests, principles of environmental stewardship are woven into the fabric of the SDGs, which was not the case of the MDGs. Also, unlike the MDGs, the proposed SDGs place requirements and responsibilities on the developed world, not just poor countries. For example, the top line goal of the proposed SDGs is to totally eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 (as defined by the number of people who live on less than $1.25 a day.) But the secondary target of this goal is to “reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.” In other words, rich countries would be obliged to substantially reduce their own poverty rates even as they help to eradicate extreme poverty globally.

This makes the SDGs slightly more contentious, as do thorny questions about financing for development. Diplomats in New York have precisely ten months to work through some of these questions and set the development agenda for the next 15 years.

If all goes according to plan–and that’s a big ‘if’– delegates at the Paris Climate Summit will build on the momentum created by the signing of ambitious but achievable sustainable development goals. The level of ambition for a far reaching climate deal is a bit lower than for the SDGs, but the outcome is nonetheless consequential for most of the world’s 7 billion people. A Paris Climate Treaty can slow down the damage humans are inflicting on the planet and new create pathways for the economic development of poor countries in responsible and sustainable ways.  Delegates will have two weeks in November and December to finalize this treaty.

Eradicating poverty, eliminating AIDS, ensuring access to quality sanitation, providing universal access to modern contraception, ending the gender gap in educational opportunities and conservation of land, sea, and air are all on the agenda in 2015. If these goals are enacted and humanity makes as much progress toward them in the next 15 years as we have made toward the MDGs in the past 15 years then the course of human history will be shifted in a profound way. If the SDGs are combined with a successful outcome at the Paris climate summit, 2015 could be a world historic inflection point in humanity’s quest to safeguard our planet and expand dignity for all.