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The SDGs provide an opportunity to break free from the one sided goal of economic growth, while unleashing the power of example!



The Sustainable Development Goals provide an opportunity to break free from the one sided goal of economic growth, while unleashing the power of example! Economic growth itself is not the problem; the problems related to economic growth seems to stem from the subordination of all other policy goals to it. This proposal suggests switching this mindset, by setting the SDGs as the policy goal instead of the current situation where the composite measure of GDP is, against its original intent, used as the ultimate goal.

The starting point for this proposal is the Judge´s Choice Winner Settle the carbon debt and release the power of example! From this proposal, I will take the suggestion that, if anything general can be learnt from history that is the power of example. This proposal suggested that unilateral measures to curb climate change could provide an example for others to follow. Here, I enlarge this observation to all Sustainable Development Goals.   

Second, I argue that the challenge to achieve all SDGs is so big and important that we cannot afford to tackle them separately, instead we need to figure out how to tackle several of them simultaneously.


...release the power of example!

Indicators for Sustainability

Communal Consumption Bill

Whose Home is wasting more energy, yours or your neighbours?

Climate Stories Project

Not space for all, see below



What actions do you propose?

Gross domestic product (GDP) is an important measure of economic growth, but it was never supposed to be a policy goal itself, as it does not measure of the overall standard of living or well-being of a country. The Sustainable Development Goals provide us an opportunity to break free from the one sided goal of economic growth, which is responsible for many of our current problems. Economic growth itself is not the problem; the problems related to economic growth seems to stem from the subordination of all other policy goals to it. (Kunnas 2012.)

In the core of this proposal is a firm belief that everyone can show example to follow by their own action. This is important, as achieving all Sustainable Development Goals is a goal to large to be achieved by top-down actions alone.

The idea, that will also promote SDG17, by strenghtening resource mobilization, is, that considering the amount of SDGs and the large task ahead, it would be a waste of time and resources to treat them as separate problems. In the same way as many environmental and social problems are connected to each other, also their solutions should be connected.For example, ecologically sustainable agriculture  is also more climate-friendly, when agricultural land at best is converted from a source of carbon dioxide into a carbon sink (SDG2 & SDG13 Climate action) . Changing fertilization practises can curb emissions of nitrous oxide, which is a 300 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One way to do this, is by making biogas from slurry to produce both fuel substitutes for fossil fuels and better fertilizer, while also reducing the amount nutrients draining into the waterways and the sea (SDG2, 7 & 14 Life below water).

Biogas bus in Stockholm, Sweden

In developing countries, one of the biggest obstacles to girls' education is the time spent on collecting firewood (SDG4 Quality education & SDG5 Gender Equality). It can be reduced by, for example, spreading energy efficient stoves and planting trees. At the same time, combating climate change and improving air quality (SDG3 Good Health and Well-being, SDG7 &13).

Developed countries bear the main responsibility for proceeding climate change affecting a multitude of SDGs, which which gives rise to certain obligations (Kunnas et al. 2014). Achieving the SDGs requires, howevever everyone's contribution. Thus it is important to remember, that the usefulness and suitability of practises and technologies to achieve Sustainable Development Goals is more important than its level of sophistication (cfp. Edgerton 2006). For exampel in agriculture (SDG2 Zero Hunger) gradual local or regional transfers between developing countries could lead to more resilient systems than global transfers (Kunnas 2013).

The carbon debt settlement part of this original idea, where developed countries carbon debts are swapped for developing countries conventional monetary debts, would again promote SDG17 (Partnerships for the goals), by mobilizing additional financial resources for developing countries.

Already such a simple sounding example, as painting the roofs of buildings white, or use other light reflective colours and or materials, can achiece several SDGs simultaneously, as it would lower the temperatures in cities making them more liveable promoting the well-being of its inhabitants, while increasing reflectivity (SDG11 Sustainable cities and communities, 3 & 13). Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found for the northern hemisphere summer, that increasing the reflectivity of roof and pavement materials in cities with a population greater than 1 million would achieve a one-time offset of 57 gigatons (1gigaton equals 1 billion metric tons) of CO2 emissions (31 Gt from roofs and 26 Gt from pavements). That's double the worldwide CO2 emissions in 2006 of 28 gigatons." Cool Roofs Can Offset Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Mitigate Global Warming (ScienceDaily July 20, 2010)

The starting point for this proposal is the Judge´s Choice Winner Settle the carbon debt and release the power of example! From this proposal, I will take the suggestion that, if anything general can be learnt from history that is the power of example. This proposal suggested that unilateral measures to curb climate change could provide an example for others to follow. Here, I enlarge this observation to all Sustainable Development Goals.

Some historical examples of the power of example are:

The ban on ozone depleting chemicals, which originated from unilateral actions by the United States and Sweden. By showing example they managed to override the scepticism and unwillingness for legislative actions held by the European Community, the predecessor of the European Union. In the very end, the solution of the problem was much cheaper than predicted, which made it easier for less enthusiastic countries to join the ban on chemicals destructive to the ozonosphere.

Acid rain, where Sweden alone got by its own example and on his initiative first other Nordic countries behind their demands. Active lobbying by Nordic countries led to an international agreement on the reduction of emissions of sulphur dioxide signed 1985 in Helsinki, after which international sulphuric oxide emissions decreased fast. For example in Finland the emissions of sulphur dioxide declined by 87 percent from 1980 to 2001. (SDG12 Responsible consumption and production)

Germany showed the path towards an energy transition with its Energiewende and fee-in tariff and Denmark had an important role as a first-mover in both onshore and offshore wind power creating both export opportunities and jobs. (SDG7 Affordable and clean energy & SDG8 Decent work...)

For this proposal most important is, however, that the power of example also works on an individual scale. I have two daughters, and there is every day evidences how the younger one follows the example of her older sister. I do not know if this has been scientifically examined, but I am sure that younger sisters or brothers in general learn earlier to walk, speak, read or whatever, as they have a role model to follow, to imitate. This also works on SDGs; we need role models to imitate and to follow.

The power of example could be intensified with a platform where fellow citizens could publish their own actions for others to follow. People could make individualized pledges for actions to take in their own lives, but do so as part of a collection of people also making similar pledges. Thus, the individual's actions have a better chance of becoming/encouraging something bigger. A possible reference point for this could be the Billion Acts of Green campaign run by Earth Day Network.

Who will take these actions and which types of actors are involved?


Young people

This approach that everyone can make a differense by their own action as many small actions sums up to large action, fits especially well to the curriculum of a modern school, where a growing role us put on learning by doing activites in contrast to focusing on text books a lone. This approach can be exemplified by the Education for Sustainable Lifestyle (ESL): Connecting Schools with the Community project, where: "...students gained new perspectives towards their own behavior. It encouraged them in terms of developing own ideas to reduce their environmental footprints and empowered them to also draw attention to their community (peers, parents, neighbors, etc.) on the topics sustainability and climate change."

University Students and Alumni: One strong example is the amount of Universities divesting from coal for both ethical and economic reasons; With Stanford joining 12 universities in US alone, showing an example for Australian an UK universities to follow. Similarly they could for example divest from companies selling weapons (SDG16 peace...),  trying to privatize water (SDG6 clean water...) or contributing to the overfishing of the oceans (SDG14 life below water).

Everyone, can take action, and no action is too small.Thus all other CoLab proposals are compatible with this proposal. Indeed a good start for this proposal going into action could be to gather a collection of old and new CoLab proposals into a booklet and webpage with simple suggestions how anyone can make a difference with their own action, showing example, instead of apathy. It does not matter if they plant a tree or take climate leave, most important is that they do something.

At best we could create competition between communities! on actions towards different SDGs, and within with applications like the Communal Consumption Bill or Whose Home is wasting more energy, yours or your neighbours? comparing your personal consumption to your neighbors.

In a separate proposal, I want to mobilize historians to provide testimonies of past success stories to provide inspiration and example.



Where will these actions be taken and how could they scale?

This proposal is scalabe at all levels; individual citizens can unleash the power of example, first engaging for example their neighbors, then their own community, their town, and finally their own country, taking the power of example to an international level.

Considering the scale of the problem, achieving all Sustainable Development Goals might feel like an insurmountable uphill. To counterweight this feeling that easily leads to apathy, we need to spread the message that no action is too small, leaving no excuse for inaction! Consolidation is provided by findings by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The belief we need to spread is that everyone can make a difference trough their own actions by showing example. The scale of the problem gets suddenly much more manageable when we try to reach this tipping point one neighborhood at the time. First engaging for your neighbors, together your own neighborhood, showing example to the whole town, and finally their own country, taking the power of example to an international level.

In addition, specify the countries where these actions will be taken.

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What impact will these actions have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?

The main impact on reducing greenhouse emissions comes from breaking the current development regime believing that ones we achieve enough economic growth that will trickle down into prosperity and well-being. This is a very ineffective way to achieve well-being causing often also large amount of greenhouse gas emissions especially when following the fossil fuel dependent western growth mode

Flipping the prevailing view point take also away the dicotomy where development and reducing greenhouse emissions are seen as alternatives. Increased well-being, at least when not measured as increased GDP, is not in conflict with reducing emissions, but can be achieved simultaneuosly.

A country that has achieved the sustainable development goals is better adapted to climate change as they increase its resilience.


What are the most innovative aspects and main strengths of this approach?

The main strength of this proposal is that its inspiring hope, this is done by chopping up the gigantic Sustainable Development Goals into human size bits, where everyones action has a meaning as they inspire others causing a snowballing effect.

In the words of Howell (2011, 3): "People need to believe that they can do something about the problem, and that it is worth doing something."


What are the proposal’s projected costs?

The major challenge is to challenge the status quo, ested interests and apathy.

Showing example is not necessary costly. For example,  climate friendly actions (SDG13) can create direct savings, like dropping unnecessary high room temperatures or excess driving. In other cases the payback time of energy saving investments or investments in renewable energy can be comparable to other good investments. The Ampere project found that unilateral action along the lines of the EU Low Carbon Economy Roadmap is affordable, bringing only limited cost mark-ups relative to the EU reference policy. 

At best this proposal will create win-win situations:

  • In many cases actions towards SDGs will mean less consumption, like saving of energy and water, thus the consumers can achieve substantial savings. This is also one major chanel the power of example will work through. The eagerness of fellow citizens to follow will increase when they realize energy savings, improved air quality and other co-benefits their neighbors receive.
  • Companies and countries showing the way for others to follow will receive competitive advantage as first movers.

One possible way to finance the proposal is the Solar Dollar a currency flexible enough to finance several SDGs.


About the Authors

I have a PhD in History & Civilization from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and have done extensive research on Finland’s transition from a solar based energy system to a fossil fuel based one, and the environmental consequences of this transition.

In my latest position, I was studying the development of forest laws in Finland and Sweden and their execution in the Arctic. Previously, Finland's last famine in the 1860s and in a project that combined insights from economics & history to conduct long-run tests of the predictive power of indicators of sustainable development.

For the moment, I am open to any job proposals, where I can make a difference!


David Edgerton (2006), The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rachel A.Howell (2011), "Lights, camera ... action? Altered attitudes and behaviour in response to the climate change film The Age of Stupid," Global Environmental Change 21, no. 1: 177-187.

Jan Kunnas (2017), "Storytelling: From the Early Anthropocene to the Good or the Ugly Anthropocene," Anthropocene Review, Vol. 4(2) 136–150.

Jan Kunnas (2013), “Traversal Technology Transfer: The Transfer of Agricultural Knowledge Between Periferias in the North”, in Dolly Jørgensen and Sverker Sörlin, (eds.) Northscapes: History, Technology, and the Making of Northern Environments. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Jan Kunnas (2012), “The Theory of Justice in a Warming Climate - John Rawls' theory applied to Finland." Electronic Green Journal, 1(34), 2012. pages)

Jan Kunnas (2001), “How to Proceed After Copenhagen." Electronic Green Journal, 1(31).

Jan Kunnas, Eoin McLaughlin, David Greasley, Nick Hanley, Les Oxley and Paul Warde (2014), “Counting Carbon: Historic emissions from fossil fuels, long-run measures of sustainable development and carbon debt,” Scandinavian Economic History Review, Vol. 62, No. 3, 243-265.

Jan Kunnas & Timo Myllyntaus (2010), “Anxiety and Technological Change - Explaining the Inverted U-curve of Sulphur Dioxide Emissions in late 20th century Finland.” Ecological Economics, Vol 69, No. 7, pp. 1587–1593.


What enabling environment would be required in order to implement this proposal?