The Contradiction of the Sustainable Development Goals: Economic Growth vs Ecology on a Finite Planet

Hickel, Jason. 2019. The Contradiction of the Sustainable Development Goals: Economic Growth vs Ecology on a Finite Planet. Sustainable Development, 27(5), pp. 873-884. ISSN 0968-0802 [Article]

No full text available

Abstract or Description

There are two sides to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which appear at risk of contradiction. One calls for humanity to achieve “harmony with nature” and to protect the planet from degradation, with specific targets laid out in Goals 6, 12, 13, 14, and 15. The other calls for continued global economic growth equivalent to 3% per year, as outlined in Goal 8, as a method for achieving human development objectives. The SDGs assume that efficiency improvements will suffice to reconcile the tension between growth and ecological sustainability. This paper draws on empirical data to test whether this assumption is valid, paying particular attention to two key ecological indicators: resource use and CO2 emissions. The results show that global growth of 3% per year renders it empirically infeasible to achieve (a) any reductions in aggregate global resource use and (b) reductions in CO2 emissions rapid enough to stay within the carbon budget for 2°C. In other words, Goal 8 violates the sustainability objectives of the SDGs. The paper proposes specific changes to SDG targets in order to resolve this issue, such as removing the requirement of aggregate global growth and introducing quantified objectives for resource use per capita with substantial reductions in high‐income nations. Scaling down resource use is also the most feasible way to achieve the climate target, as it reduces energy demand. The paper presents alternative pathways for realizing human development objectives that rely on reducing inequality—both within nations and between them—rather than aggregate growth.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


climate change, decoupling, growth, human development, inequality, resource use, sustainable development

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



26 February 2019Accepted
15 April 2019Published Online
September 2019Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Jun 2019 10:04

Last Modified:

26 Nov 2019 16:49

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


Edit Record Edit Record (login required)