Urgent reform to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is needed if countries are to achieve their stated aim of alleviating poverty and addressing inequalities globally by 2030, say a team of researchers writing in the journal Science.
Published ahead of a major international summit taking place next week at the UN to discuss progress on the SDGs only seven years out from the 2030 target to achieve them, the researchers argue that since they were established in 2015 they have had limited political impact.
Authored by ten leading experts of sustainability governance including three academics from the University of Bath’s Centre for Development Studies, under the leadership of Professor Frank Biernann from Utrecht University, the article suggests the imminent UN Summit must pave the way for four major changes in how the SDGs are implemented and governed.
Dr Yixian Sun from the University of Bath, whose work focuses on Earth system governance and who has been instrumental in convening the network of experts who contributed to Science, explains: “This is a hugely significant article in a prestigious international journal to send a strong message to the international discussions which will be taking place next week all about the future of the SDGs. We want our analysis to reach high-level policymakers and influence their discussions.
“We know there is great potential for the SDGs to alleviate poverty and solving ecological crisis whilst enhancing education, health, prosperity and empowerment across the globe. But this potential has not yet fully been realised. With only 7 years to go until the 2030 Agenda, it is incumbent on world leaders to double down their efforts and ensure this moment is not lost.”
The four reforms
“Our research has shown that the SDGs lack any sizeable impact on political systems,” argues Frank Biermann, professor at Utrecht University and the lead author of this study. He continues, “Now is the moment for change. Governments must urgently launch a process to strengthen the SDG framework through four make-or-break reform measures.”
First, the expert group calls for the SDGs to be strengthened in a way that commits high-income countries to stronger and more concrete action. So far, wealthier countries often focus on those SDGs that they can most easily achieve, and the agenda’s universal approach may be obscuring unequal global consumption and emissions patterns. Also, with inadequate finance holding back SDG implementation in the Global South, stronger commitments by high-income countries to equitable financing solutions are needed.
Second, the SDGs must be adjusted to new challenges, improved scientific understanding, and past failures in implementation. The goals must become more adaptable to escalating crises of ecological breakdown, global pandemics, and rising inequalities, and the UN should introduce regular review rounds where countries can adjust their ambitions to evolving global circumstances.
Third, the SDGs are not legally binding and are often merely vague commitments. While this approach has helped to bring all governments together under the broad banner of the SDGs, it is no longer enough. Instead, governments must together take steps to turn at least parts of the SDGs into binding international law. The authors highlight the ongoing negotiations for an international treaty to end plastic pollution as an example, which is linked to SDG 12 (Sustainable Production and Consumption).
Fourth, many SDGs are poorly embedded in the structures, policies, practices, and norms of local, national, and international institutions and political systems. Governments need to build stronger institutions, both internationally and at home, to make the SDGs a fundamental part of how they operate and make decisions. To support this, the researchers argue that much stronger global oversight of the SDGs is needed. One option would be the creation of a UN Council on Sustainable Development as a major centre of global sustainability coordination in the UN system.
They also draw on recent research showing the SDGs are making notable impact through the work of cities, provinces, and parts of civil society, arguing that strengthening these networks can also play a key role in accelerating the SDG agenda. Some of this work has been developed by researchers at Bath, including CDS co-director Dr Aurelie Charles who has worked locally in the region on projects seeking to embed SDGs in local policymaking.
She said: “The SDG agenda has had the ambition to propose a systemic approach to achieve sustainable development. Yet, its application hasn't had the systemic impact expected. However, across the globe, a few islands of success have emerged at the city level, allowing to identify local and community priorities in the SDG agenda. This suggests that bottom-up initiatives are key to the differentiation, dynamization, legalization and institutionalisation strategies we are recommending for accelerating its implementation.”
The reforms proposed in the Science article emerged from the discussions in a high-level international workshop which took place in Bath in June 2023. The event was led by Dr Sun with colleagues Dr Aurelie Charles and Dr Michael Bloomfield from the Centre for Development Studies and Department of Social & Policy Sciences at Bath, with support from the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences Internationalisation Fund.
A global agenda
“The SDGs must be supported across the board by all levels of government, civil society and the private sector. Only this will ensure that our world will make meaningful progress towards global sustainability,” said Dr Sun who co-authored the study.
Professor Biermann added: “The SDG Summit is a crucial event to pave the way for a major reform process that will allow the floundering SDGs to deliver on their promise of a global sustainability transition, while ensuring that no one is left behind.”
For almost five decades, CDS researchers at Bath have been working on issues associated with the SDGs. The establishment of the Earth System Governance Research Centre Bath in 2022 has linked the University into one of the largest networks of sustainability scholars globally and has solidified Bath as a world-leading hub for research on the SDGs.
Dr Michael Bloomfield, CDS’ other co-director and senior lecturer in international development added: “We look forward to continued collaboration with our international colleagues, at Utrecht University and beyond, to produce impactful, policy relevant research that contributes to improving the life prospects of people everywhere.”
The publication of the latest Science article also coincides with news that Bath researchers, Dr Sun and Prof Jonathan Dawes, contributed to and are cited in the scientific review of the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report, commissioned by the UN Secretary-General.