UN warned of pitfalls of vague SDG targets

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Copyright: UN Women/Ryan Brown

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  • Only 29 per cent of targets are well-defined and based on the latest science
  • They need to be critically reviewed to ensure they can be monitored effectively
  • A lack of connection between the goals risks them working against one another

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The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may struggle to achieve their stated objectives due to a lack of clearly defined targets, a report warns.
The report was published last week (12 February) by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council just ahead of the second session of negotiations on the UN’s post-2015 development agenda. These discussions start today in New York, United States.

“As countries are entering the final phase of negotiating a global agenda for sustainable development, it is important that the SDG targets be critically reviewed to ensure that they can guide implementation and be effectively monitored.”

Anne-Sophie Stevance, ICSU 

The report includes contributions from more than 40 scientists. It looks at the 169 targets within the 17 draft SDGs that will replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals and guide global development until 2030.
It found that only 29 per cent of the targets are well-defined and based on the latest scientific evidence. In all, 54 per cent need more work to pin them down and 17 per cent are weak or nonessential, the report states.
“As countries are entering the final phase of negotiating a global agenda for sustainable development, it is important that the SDG targets be critically reviewed to ensure that they can guide implementation and be effectively monitored,” says Anne-Sophie Stevance, a science officer at ICSU and lead coordinator of the report.
For example, one target that needs more work is part of the SDG on ensuring access to affordable, reusable, sustainable energy for all, says Stevance. Currently, the target is to “increase substantially” the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. This should be changed to “double the share” of renewable energy so the target is measurable, she says.
“Developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions does not constitute a target that can be easily measured, and is thus ineffective,” says Stevance.
The authors also found a lack of connection between the 17 goals, increasing the risk of overlap between goals and situations where one goal would advance at the expense of another.
“The goals represent sectors in society, but sustainable development science and our experience tell us that everything fits together,” says Måns Nilsson, research director at the Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden, who contributed to the report.
This ‘siloed’ approach to both goals and targets means that, within the SDG discussions, it is impossible to think about how health, food security and climate change relate to one another, he says.
“Targets can either be constraining each other or they can reinforce each other, so it’s very important to understand when there is a trade-off or a synergy situation,” he says.
The authors hope the report will highlight the need for a technical review of the targets. But they also want the negotiating parties to think harder about what the world would look like if these goals are achieved.
“There is a need to formulate a narrative of development,” says Nilsson. “What kind of world is this set of 17 goals leading to? It’s not necessarily something that the UN can decide, as there are competing visions of the future. But there are also some universal truths about mankind and what it is to be a person on this planet.”
But Allam Ahmed, the director of the Middle Eastern Knowledge Economy Institute at the United Kingdom’s University of Brighton and senior lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, says the report’s focus on inclusivity is itself compromised by the fact that most contributions are from developed countries. “For example, there is not a single scholar from the Middle East, North Africa or India,” he says.

According to Ahmed, this could create problems further down the line, when it comes to implementing the SDGs with communities from these regions. “The report is treating these targets and goals merely from an academic point of view and does not involve practitioners from within the various countries across the world,” he says. “It is the same mistake again and again. We need to understand that the problems of sustainability cannot be resolved without all of us working together towards one path to achieve sustainable development.”
UN member states are due to approve the 17 SDGs and their associated targets later this year.
Link to the report