United Nations development goals criticised by influential environmental researcher, top economists

Some of the world's top economists have criticised key United Nations development goals due to be presented by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon next week.

There are 17 goals, with 169 targets, involving things like ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, promoting sustainable economic growth and reducing inequality within and among countries.

They are set to try to make the world a better place over the next 15 years.

However there has been criticism of the large number of targets, with one of the world's top environmental researchers saying they will be hard to prioritise.

Copenhagen Consensus Centre director Bjorn Lomborg said the goals are a wonderful opportunity to talk about what should be done, but there are too many topics to choose from.

"We have so many different targets on the table and that's really the problem. If you have 169 targets you have no priorities," Dr Lomborg said.

Dr Lomborg has brought together the world's top economists to identify the goals with the greatest cost-benefit ratio.

"We've actually made a version for the US ambassadors and everyone else to read, where we've marked up all the goals with green if they're really good, yellow if they're sort of OK and red if they're not," he said.

Part of the green group are the goals of reducing malnutrition and promoting free trade.

"Malnutrition turns out to be a phenomenal idea. Probably for every dollar you spend in getting food to really small kids, you do about $45 worth of good," Dr Lomborg said.

"Free trade as they talked about at the G20 in Brisbane, because it costs virtually nothing, probably for every dollar spent you do about $2,000 worth of good."

Renewable solutions for global warming fail economists' test

Sustainable tourism and tackling global warming with renewables however did not get the tick of approval.

"On the other end there's sustainable tourism, there's also this idea we should tackle global warming with renewables which of course we can't quite afford yet, so it's probably not a good idea for the developing world," Dr Lomborg said.

He also said we should cut fossil fuel subsidies.

"That's a huge drain as we just saw for instance with Indonesia. It cost them more than their whole health service, that's wrong."

The UN has has previously presented similar goals, most recently in the Millenium Development goals in 2000.

It covered eight areas, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Dr Lomborg said those were very simple, specific goals that have made a big difference.

"In 1990 we estimate about 12 million kids died before their fifth birthday. Today that number is almost down to six million. Of course way too [many], but it's almost a halving of the damage," he said.

Different countries and different regions have their own priorities, but Dr Lomborg said the solution to that is to discuss the goals in order to come to a compromise.

"If we point out there are some goals, some targets that are phenomenal, and some targets not so much, we can all sort of agree to move towards doing more of the really smart goals," he said.