18.06.2012 - Science Magazine

Analyzing Sustainable Development Goals

The Rio+20 agenda has grown from two uninspiring, but essential, foci, the green economy and institutional framework for sustainable development, into a chaotic catchall for the world’s woes. Neither approach offers much hope of attracting the attention of world leaders needed to make the conference a success. In recent months, though, one promising idea has emerged: universal sustainable development goals (SDGs). Proposed by Colombia and Guatemala, SDGs have gained momentum and could provide a much needed “big idea.” Much work, including early engagement from science, needs to be done to ensure success.

The new goals would likely expand on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) due to end in 2015. But several key differences must mark SDGs. First, MDGs centered around seven social goals and just one environmental goal. Long-term social and economic improvement will need closer attention to be paid to the environment. Second, whereas MDGs focused on developing countries, SDGs need buy-in from all nations. Third, MDGs were hastily assembled without thorough analysis. In spite of this, there have been successes, particularly those with quantitative targets such as universal primary education (MDG 2) and access to safe drinking water (MDG 7). SDGs deserve deeper analysis of interconnections and synergies between goals, trade-offs, and indicators and targets.

The March conference, Planet Under Pressure, held the first major science-policy dialogue on SDGs, jointly organized with the team set up to direct the post-2015 MDGs.

The resulting State of the Planet Declaration endorsed the SDG proposal, but the conference concluded that rushing to identify goals without in-depth dialogue with all stakeholders would be a grave mistake. Given that we have 3 years left to run on MDGs, there is no excuse to sidestep such a deep analysis. The global scientifi c community is ready to participate in the codesign of the SDGs and related measures. The launching of the 10-year Future Earth initiative focusing on global sustainability solutions is an example of their commitment and that of their funders.

By Lidia Brito
Director, Division of Science Policy and Capacity-Building, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Published in Science, Vol 336, 15 June 2012

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