As the work progresses in developing the set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that are to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in 2015, researchers voice their concerns of how to produce goals that are achievable while corresponding to a desired future scenario for human and environmental development.
Three is the magic number
A recently published article in Ecology and Society presents three necessary conditions for establishing effective SDGs.
Lead author is centre researcher Albert Norström, and he is joined by colleagues Maja Schlüter and Lisen Schultz from the centre, Gustav Engström and Johan Gars from the Beijer Instutute of Ecological Economics and a group of twelve other international researchers.
"While the Millennium Development Goals focused mainly on alleviating poverty in developing countries, the Sustainable Development Goals need to have all nations on board," says Norström.
"This means that the process of developing the new goals needs to be based on an inclusive and broad analysis of what we want to achieve by putting the goals in place, and that it needs to allow for actors from science and the rest of society to meet and discuss."
Parts of a whole
As a first condition the authors argue that the SDGs need to embrace the concept of social-ecological systems, seeing people and the biosphere as integrated parts of a whole rather than as separate systems.
"Research is showing that humans are a part of and shaping ecosystems from the local to the global scale, and at the same time we are fundamentally dependent on the functioning of these systems", says Maja Schlüter.
"The SDGs should be designed so that they increase the awareness of the connection between functioning ecosystems and for example poverty alleviation and human development"
Maja Schlüter, co-author
Finding middle ground
Secondly, the authors argue, the SDG process needs to address and navigate the trade-offs between being ambitious and achievable. The new goals will be composed of moral and political commitments, much like the MDGs, but they will not be legally binding. This means that there is a need for those setting the goals to be aware of the different constraints, biophysical, social and political, that different nations and peoples face.
It also means that the SDGs need to be set in a way so that they are inspiring rather than deterring. And that they should address issues that can be tackled on different levels in society and government.
"Combining an appreciation for governance that is polycentric, operating on different levels, with the acknowledgement of the trade-offs between high ambition and feasibility, means that the SDGs need to address different scales and levels of governance and society," says Lisen Schultz.
"The SDGs should enable actors on different scales in society to feel responsible and motivate them to push for positive change. If the bar is set too high, this will not happen."
Starting with what we know
The third condition for developing effective SDGs is that formulating the goals should be guided by existing knowledge about social change processes on all scales, from global to individual.
"Accounting for existing belief systems and norms at various scales can improve both the design and the implementation of SDGs by shedding light on constraints while also providing opportunities for producing national-scale targets and incentives beneath each goal," says Norström.
"This allows national targets to be formulated in a way that resonate with belief systems and norms, avoiding the counterproductive consequences that can arise from ideological polarization."
The authors conclude that incorporating these three conditions in the development of the SDGs should increase the likelihood that the goals once formulated are relevant and feasible.
Citation: Norström, A. V., A. Dannenberg, G. McCarney, M. Milkoreit, F. Diekert, G. Engström, R. Fishman, J. Gars, E. Kyriakopoolou, V. Manoussi, K. Meng, M. Metian, M. Sanctuary, M. Schlüter, M. Schoon, L. Schultz, and M. Sjöstedt. 2014. Three necessary conditions for establishing effective Sustainable Development Goals in the Anthropocene. Ecology and Society 19(3): 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06602-190308
Albert Norström is research coordinator for the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) and is currently assessing and predicting regional coral reef resilience in the Hawaiian archipelago.
Maja Schlüter's research focuses on the co-evolution of social-ecological systems (SES) resulting from interactions between actors, institutions and ecosystems over time.
Lisen Schultz's work focuses on the role of bridging actors, who catalyze collaboration and learning across levels and sectors in adaptive co-management.