Bjorn Lomborg on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development

Bjorn Lomborg, the head of the Copenhagen Consensus, discusses the UN's Global Goals for Sustainable Development with Editor Gideon Rose.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.


Gideon Rose: Bjorn is one of the most interesting thinkers and intellectual provocateurs in today's public sphere. And he has done a lot of work and his organization has done a lot of work on the Sustainable Development Goals. These are the targets that the international community has decided should replace the Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs which ran from 2000 to 2015. Now, we've come to a new set, the STGs that are gonna run from 2015 to 2030. First of all, do you think that such goals in general are worthwhile Bjorn?

Lomborg: In general, yes. I mean, I think it's a great idea both to have the conversation. So, what do we actually want in the next 15 years? That's a wonderful conversation not only to have on a global level, but also on a national level.

Gideon Rose: But why are goals like this worthwhile at all if they're just promises to do something that are always then broken?

Lomborg: Well, if you look at the MDGs, the Millennium Development Goals, they were actually very quick, and sweet, and sharp. So, they promise to reduce poverty, reduce hunger, get kids in school, stop them from dying, stop their moms from dying, get clean drinking water and sanitation. I've just said all of the main goals in there. And that actually funneled a lot of money because everybody sort of say, "Hey, that's doable. Let's try and get that done." Now, we didn't manage to do all of it. Certainly, some of the things that we managed to do was not mainly because of the Millennium Development Goals, but it really provided an impetus because they were sharp and short. They were obvious and good, and it could sort of gather everyone around them.

Gideon Rose: So, 15 years, somewhat successful project, where you start a new round, there was an opportunity to do something good this round. What should have been done with the STGs? 

Lomborg: We have one really, really successful target namely the Millennium Development Goals which everybody got on board with. So, you probably say a smart way to do that would be to do something similar. But the UN said "No. Let's do something else. Let's try to focus on getting everybody involved to talk about what everybody wants."

Gideon Rose: So, they should have crowd sourced the question of what the new goal should be?

Lomborg: Yes. And not...

Gideon Rose: And what was the result?

Lomborg: Well, not surprisingly if you ask lots and lots of people, what do you want for targets? You get lots and lots of answers.

Gideon Rose: How many of the Millennium Development Goals were there?

Lomborg: There were 18 targets.

Gideon Rose: And how many targets are there for the Sustainable Development Goals, the STGs?

Lomborg: There is a 169 targets.

Gideon Rose: A 169 targets? My God.

Lomborg: So, the reality is this is no longer something that can get everybody excited. Now, if they were phenomenal targets, may be that would be okay still. But they are not.

Gideon Rose: So, you did a project that tries to essentially say "What gives you the most bang for the buck among these different targets to try to prioritize them?" What were the some of the things that would be good targets that they should have spend a lot of time and effort focusing on?

Lomborg: Let me just say we asked some of the worlds top economist and in education, and in health and in nutrition, and all the other areas to estimate how much does it cost to do this target and how much good does it do. Not just economically but also socially. So, how many people will not die and environmentally, so how many wet lands will we save?

So, this is really a best sort of estimate of for every dollar you spend, how much good do you do? Now, look, economists shouldn't be running the world. This is not what we are saying, but we simply provide it, if you will, the menu of choices. So, you get all these delightful targets, but you also get a sense of how much do they cost, how much good are they.

Gideon Rose: So, what are the kinds of things that would be best to focus on if you were made God?

Lomborg: So, [chuckle] or just people were reading these...

Gideon Rose: Or secretary general.

Lomborg: Yes. So, we found that there are some really, really phenomenal targets like reducing malnutrition. We know that if you reduce malnutrition for kids, they not only... Not only sub-morally a good thing, but it also means that they develop their brain better so that when they go to... Even a crappy school which much many of them will. They learn more, they stay longer in school and then when they become adults, they are much more productive. They are actually if they avoid being stunted about 60% higher incomes for those kids.

We estimate that for every dollar you spend on nutrition, you do $45 worth of good.

Gideon Rose: What's another one?

Lomborg: Contraception for women. It turns out that if you get more contraception to women... There is about 215 million women who don't have access. If you get them access to contraception, the cost will be about $3.6 billion a year. But the benefits will not only be that moms won't be dying in child birth. We estimate about 150,000 for your moms. But also that you get what the demographers call a demographic dividend. So, you get a situation where you have few kids, few old people for a generation to have, and lots and lots of people in the working age.

For every dollar spent, you do about $120 worth of good. We also look at some of the environmental issues, we say cut fossil fuel subsidies. You'll still need to help some really poor people, but mostly fossil fuel subsidies in the developing world is a subsidy to rich people because they are the ones who have the car. So for every dollar spent, you'll probably do than $15 worth of good. Likewise if you look at coral reefs, we estimate that if you try to preserve them by making sure that you don't dynamite fish and cyanide fish and you also reduce some of the cheap runoff problems, for every dollar spent, you'll not only save some beautiful biodiversity, but you also engender more tourism and jobs, and for every dollar spent, you'll do $24 worth of good.

Gideon Rose: What's an example of a goal that might sound nice that's included in the 169 or whatever, but actually is something you would say, "Don't make this one of your key tasks"?

Lomborg: One is for instance let's say, reduce hunger to 0%, so eradicate hunger. That is setting ourselves up for failure because we know we're not gonna be able to do that by 2030, and so, essentially the message the taxpayers are gonna get is, "Huh, another failed attempt from the UN." So that's a bad idea to promise something that's way beyond what we can do even though its intentions really well based. If you also look at they promised jobs to everyone and good jobs to everyone. The problem with that of course is, government's already trying to do that. There's no magic formula that the UN can sort of add to that and make sure that we somehow magically make more jobs. Actually, a lot of research shows that if you try to make good jobs, you very easily end up having a few really good jobs that everybody wants, only a few people get, and that actually pushes more people back into the informal economy and increases poverty for instance, in India.

Then a third kind of promise is just the ones where you're basically promising to spend lots of money and not do all that much good. The idea of doubling renewables in the world is a good example. We estimate that if you double the renewables, that means more energy especially to the world's poor, that's wonderful, so more energy access. It also means reduce CO2 emissions. In total, that benefit is probably in the order of $400 billion a year, that's great. The problem is, it'll cost about $500 billion a year, and that's why we say, "For every dollar spent, you'll only do 80 cents worth of good." Now in a world where we could fix all problems, hey, maybe that would be even a good idea, but certainly as long as we don't, we should be focusing on the $45 in the world.

Gideon Rose: All this sounds very smart and logical and sensible, but people putting these other targets together aren't stupid. Why didn't they listen to your kind [08:51] ____?

Lomborg: One of the ambassadors, I'm not gonna name names, but actually he told me pretty straightforward and several said similar things, if we had to take away all the stupid targets, we'd also have to take our stupid targets off. So the sense was this was much more about sort of marking out what do nations want.

Gideon Rose: Does that mean that there are some kinds of processes in which democracy is not necessarily a great way to proceed?

Lomborg: Well, I think it's more a question of saying that this was never really a democratic process, it was much more sort of a UN process where a lot of ambassadors were struggling and there was no cost for just adding more and more targets. So I think the reality is, we have now 169 sustainable development goals or as they are now calling them the global goals, and everybody is going home from New York with this huge number of targets and they're thinking, "My God! What am I gonna do when I get back home?" And that's where I think this sort of impact will really be felt when an individual country will have to implement this and actually say, "Alright, which of these 169 AM I gonna start with?"

Gideon Rose: So even though there are now 169 official global goals, the countries in question and other individuals and other organizations can still choose to narrow them down, whittle them down and develop their own priorities, so you think that the effort to try to rank those goals in terms of their efficiency and sense still has efforts because it can be a sort of post hock act of intellectual discipline that it wasn't, even though it wasn't involved in the earlier stages?

Lomborg: Yes. I mean first of all, although probably technically everyone should do all 169, everyone agrees, "Yeah, we're gonna do some of this." So in some sense, the UN proved itself to be somewhat ineffective of this area and everyone will now have to have that conversation back home, and when they have that, that's where we can then come and say... And, we're actually actively doing this with Bangladesh and Haiti and we're also hopeful to get more countries involved, and basically saying, "So, over the next 50 years, what do you wanna focus on?"

Gideon Rose: Interesting questions. I'm sure those conversations are gonna be very fun. Bjorn Lomborg, thank you very much.

Lomborg: Thank you.

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