Thoughts on Sustainable Development Goals

In 2000, the UN established the Millennium Development Goals to set aspirational targets for international development across a range of issue areas including poverty alleviation, education, gender equality, child and maternal health, environmental sustainability, reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases, and building a global partnership for development.  With a target date of 2015, many of these goals remain both unattained and unattainable.  As a result, at last year’s Rio+20 sustainable development summit UN member states agreed to start a process of designing a new set of “sustainable development” goals to replace the MDGs. The working group proposing the new list of goals is tasked to select goals over the next year that are “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”.

Since Rio+20 a huge number of potential goals have been generated by development experts, agencies, NGOs, government bureaucracies, and researchers.  One prominent example that integrates the SDGs into research on the planetary boundaries literature is Griggs et al’s piece last month in Nature (Griggs, D., Stafford-Smith, M., Gaffney, O., Rockström, J., Öhman, M. C., Shyamsundar, P., … & Noble, I. (2013). Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature495(7441), 305-307.).  In this piece, the authors propose viewing the goals for a system whereby the economy services society that is itself nested within the Earth’s life-support system.  From here, they elicit a number of potential SDGs.

In response to this piece (see our comments in the 20 June 2013 edition of Nature) and to the broader set of literature, the Beijer Young Scholars highlight the necessity to incorporate a scientific understanding of social change into goal formulation at scales ranging from the individual to that of the international community.  Without a view of what change is feasible, how goals interact with each other, and means of overcoming negative institutional inertia, the international community will once again be left with a list of noble, yet unachieved, goals similar to the MDGs.  It is our hope that we can use our knowledge to improve upon past outcomes.

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