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Scientists critical that the UN's sustainable development goals do not make us resilient to withstand a changing climate

People in a city in front of a wall. Photo: Unsplash.
Based on their comparison, the researchers want the next global agenda to be based on more dynamic goals and targets with more options for follow-up - that can be adjusted based on new information, such as how specific weather events impact societies.

A new study from LUCSUS shows that the UN's sustainable development goals as a whole do not contribute to making us more resilient to cope with disruptive changes, such as climate change. The researchers behind the study believe that the next global agenda should put the relationship between ecosystems and humans in focus and start from flexible goals that promote transformative leadership and are easier to follow up and measure.

Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals aim to create sustainable development. Sustainable development means that we meet today's needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs. This year, 2023, the global agenda has reached the halfway point and now has seven years to go.

– Strengthening the resilience of communities and ecosystems against climate change is a cornerstone of future sustainable development. Humans and nature are interdependent, but today's agenda does not take this into account and how interactions between different systems affect our ability to cope with change. That the goals are static, with an end date of 2030, is also not optimal given the importance of long-term investments, and the complexity that exists in our societies, says Murray Scown, assistant professor at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

The environmental goals build resilience 

Together with colleagues in the USA, Sweden and Colombia, he has analyzed to what extent the current 17 goals, which together have 169 targets, contribute to building resilient communities and ecosystems. Resilience refers to societies that can absorb, adapt, and respond to both slow and rapid climate changes. The researchers identified 43 different factors that contribute to building resilience, in biophysical, social and economic domains. The factors include, for example: protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, management of forest and water resources, sustainable use of marine resources, inclusive decision-making, communication, transparency and economic diversity, and management of risks.

In the next step, the researchers compared how well the targets of the global agenda contributed to promoting or developing these factors. The comparison shows that the sustainable development goals that most contribute to social-ecological resilience are goals: 13 – Climate Action, 14 – Life below water, 15 – Life on land, as well as 2 – Zero hunger, and 6 – Clean water and sanitation. By contrast, goals that should have clear links to social-ecological resilience—such as 1 – No poverty, 3 – Good health and well-being, and 4 – Quality education—do not contribute their full potential because these goals are based on a traditional economic development paradigm without taking into account how, for example, health and knowledge enhance resilience, nor how ecosystem feedbacks affect communities.

– We were surprised that there were so few goals that actually aimed to build social-ecological resilience. The goals that do this are also the goals in which the least resources are often invested. For example, most development assistance funders like the World Bank and UNICEF prefer to support health and education, and many governments perceive targets linked to climate action as relatively unimportant compared to education, jobs, health and strong institutions, says Robin Craig, Professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and one of the lead authors.

Lacking tools to encourage organisations to work sustainably 

Another result was that the global agenda and its targets do not take sufficient account of how different ecosystems, economic systems and social processes affect each other and that changes can occur to different extents and in different places—for example, hydropower dam construction for renewable energy in the upper parts of a river basin can disrupt river processes and ecosystems downstream, which impacts societies dependent on them for food production or flood protection.

The agenda as a whole also lacks tools to encourage organisations to work sustainably, such as mandatory reporting on environmental risks at various levels. Furthermore, the researchers are critical that the agenda's narrow focus on national follow-up can marginalise or weaken efforts to support ecosystems that cross borders, such as rivers or mountain ranges.

A dynamic agenda that focuses on resilience

Based on their comparison, the researchers want the next global agenda to be based on more flexible and dynamic goals and targets with more options for follow-up. Which can be adjusted based on new information, such as how specific extreme weather events affect communities and ecosystems. It is also important that the goals promote transparency and a transformative leadership to support communities to cope with the major changes that are to be expected. 

– Disclosure and transparency must be key components of the next sustainable development agenda, especially one that acknowledges the importance of means (or processes) rather than ends (or goals) in social and ecological transformation” says Dr. Jorge H. García, one of the study authors from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.

– If we base the next global agenda on the realisation that people and nature are part of a whole and develop the goals in line with this, we have the opportunity to bring about a positive change, even though the goals have proven difficult to achieve. Today, it is the most ambitious agreement for sustainable development that the world's leaders have adopted, and at the same time a framework that everyone, from individuals and municipalities to companies, can work with. It gives the global agenda a great force that it is important to build on and develop, says Murray Scown.

Download the article: Towards a global sustainable development agenda built on social-ecological resilience. It is published in Global Sustainability. 

Murray Scown


Murray Scown is a geographer with a passion for spatial analyses of complex social-ecological systems. His research utilises big data and GIS to map, measure, and model land use and river systems across a range of scales from local to continental.

Email: murray [dot] scown [at] lucsus [dot] lu [dot] se (murray[dot]scown[at]lucsus[dot]lu[dot]se)
Telephone. 0793559706

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