Five priorities for the UN Sustainable Development Goals

This week, the United Nations is deliberating in New York how to implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which it will formally launch in September. Science should be at the center of your plans.

The SDGs place greater demands on the scientific community than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which they replace. Addressing climate change, renewable energy, food, health and water provision requires coordinated global monitoring and modeling of multiple factors, such as social, economic and environmental.

Much remains to be done: 17 targets include 169 targets, of which 91 need to be specified in more detail. There is a need to develop metrics to measure progress towards the goals at the local, national, regional and global levels and across sectors. Monitoring and evaluation processes and standards need to be established.

To guide action, the relationship between goals needs to be better understood. Some synergies and trade-offs depend on scale – for example, greater fertilizer use may increase food production and income locally, but will increase pollution. Mitigation of climate change happens at the local level, but its consequences are global.

Based on the findings of Scientific Review1 of the draft SDGs conducted by the International Council for Science (ICSU), we set five priorities for how the scientific community should participate in this process.

five priorities

Will Metrics. Scientists, social scientists and economists need to develop a set of practical indices to track progress on each of the SDGs. Ensuring access to sustainable and modern energy for all (Goal 7), for example, will require indicators of improvement in energy efficiency and carbon savings from renewable-energy technologies (see go.nature.com/pkij7y).

Parameters other than just economic growth should be included, such as income inequality, carbon emissions, population and life span1.

Existing methods can form the starting point, including environmental impact assessment, natural-property assessment, cost-benefit analysis and life-cycle costing.

Ambiguous terms in the wording of goals, such as ‘sustainable’, ‘efficient’ and ‘adequate’, need to be defined quantitatively so that the goals are measurable, comparable and achievable. Scientific analysis of the effectiveness of different scenarios should inform the metrics.

Set up a monitoring system. Governments and researchers must decide what values ​​need to be tracked, and set up systems to obtain the data. Quantities such as water and energy consumption, emissions and health effects need to be monitored, as do scientific variables such as water pH, turbidity and metal concentrations. Social scientists should propose what types of data on behaviour, values ​​and beliefs should be collected and analyzed, how and by whom 1.

For the data to be considered in context, analysis and interpretation should ideally be provided at the same time by an independent government-backed organization. In water quality monitoring, for example, measurements of physical, chemical and biological characteristics such as pH and chemical oxygen demand are compared to national or regional water-quality standards related to the impact on human and ecosystem health. Huh.

Global cooperation between governments and scientific bodies will be essential in establishing monitoring programs and helping developing countries implement them.

Evaluate progress. Scientists should help choose criteria – such as water-quality standards – against which to measure progress toward goals, based on accepted principles of good practice or governance, such as social equity or cost-effectiveness.

A peer-review mechanism should be established through the United Nations Forum for Intergovernmental Dialogue to evaluate the performance and implementation of SDG projects and policies every 3-5 years – and suggest reforms where necessary .

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and other scientific-evaluation bodies should constitute task forces to decide how they can evaluate relevant aspects of the goals, either by extension of their remits or by sharing your experiences with one another. Central SDG appraisal body3.

SDG evaluators must also decide how to incorporate the contributions of regions, cities, companies and others into national and international pledges; Consider national or local conditions when evaluating progress; and check whether sustainable development is incorporated into planning processes and strategies at all levels.

Increase infrastructure. There is a need to expand Earth observation, ground-based surveillance and information-processing capabilities to deliver better global coverage, allow direct comparison of data using similar tools, and store, analyze and share data.

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