Measuring The Millennium Development Goals: Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

To improve human life, we also need to improve the planet–or our better lives won’t mean much.

Measuring The Millennium Development Goals: Ensuring Environmental Sustainability
[Photos: sondem via Shutterstock]

Of all eight Millennium Development Goals, the seventh is the only one that doesn’t focus entirely on people, although of course it affects us as much as the others. Instead, the targets relate to the world around us: Reduce the loss of biodiversity, increase afforestation, lower carbon emissions, and improve living conditions for people by providing access to fresh water.


Both carbon emissions and deforestation have continued to rise over the past 15 years, and while the ozone layer is expected to recover by the middle of this century, water scarcity is expected to get worse.


In the 1990s, we were losing a net average of 8.3 million hectares of forest every year. By 2010, that number was 5.2 million hectares, and–according to the MDG 2015 report, “deforestation remains alarmingly high in many countries.” Afforestation programs, mostly in China, have slowed the overall problem, but South America and Africa have more than made up for it. And fire and drought in Australia means that Oceania has also experienced a net loss.

One consequence of deforestation is that the carbon stored by the trees has been released, at a rate of around half a gigatonne per year from 2005 to 2010. This has contributed to the overall increase in carbon emissions, which has jumped from 21.6 billion (metric) tons in 1990 to 33 billion tons today. That’s an increase of over 50%, and most of that is in the past 15 years. As expected, developed nations have slowed carbon emissions since 2000, while developing nations have really started spewing it into the air as they grow, almost tripling emissions in the past 25 years, and doubling them in the last 10.


We’re also overexploiting marine fisheries, to the extent that only 71% of world fish stocks are within their safe biological limits, despite successful rebuilding of fisheries in Europe, Oceania and North America.

The biggest tool in combating overfishing is the increase of protected inland and coastal water areas. Between them, Latin America and the Caribbean have almost tripled protected areas, going from 8.8% to 23.4% in the last 15 years. Worldwide, those figures are still, low, with a projected 10% of marine and coastal waters being protected by 2020.

Drinking Water and Sanitation

It’s not all bad news though. The global target to improve the world’s access to clean drinking water was met five years early. The goal was to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.” The target for drinking water was met in 2010, and 91% of the population today has access to better drinking water, up from 76% in 1990.


But while 2.1 billion more people now have access to better sanitation, the targets weren’t met, with the worst failures in Sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, where sanitation levels have reached as little as 50% of targets.


The MDG target to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers has been met, mostly due to better sanitation, water supplies and durable housing. But, in that time, the number of people living in slums has grown.

The Future

In the future, the focus should be on “integration of environment into development ambitions,” says the report. A UNESCO report, though, says that the “failure of well-intentioned development programmes” like the MDGs reveals “the inadequacy of universal policies.” It proposes culture-led development, which would promote cultural tourism, and combine traditional practices with new technology to achieve sustainable growth.

About the author

Previously found writing at, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.