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Reframing the sustainable development goals to achieve sustainable development in the Anthropocene—a systems approach

Michelle M. L. Lim, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide; Environment Institute, University of Adelaide
Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
Carina A Wyborn, Luc Hoffmann Institute, IUCN Conservation Centre, Rue Mauverney 28, 1196 Gland, Switzerland; Department of Society and Conservation, University of Montana, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula, Montana, 59801, USA


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Griggs et al. (2013) redefine sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.” We recommend this as the end goal that the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) should strive to achieve. Integration across the SDGs is less than what is required from a science perspective. Effective implementation of the SDGs will require States to attend to trade-offs and overlaps. We argue that continuous failure to address integration within the SDGs will jeopardize realization of this ultimate end goal. Therefore, we adopt a systems approach to identify gaps and connections across the goals and targets of the SDGs as well as leverage points for effective intervention. We triangulate across methods of critical analysis, conceptual modeling, and keyword network analysis to draw out seven “overarching directions” that could provide a prioritization framework to enhance efficient implementation of the SDGs. Our results identify main gaps as exclusion of key actors (e.g., corporations) and issues (e.g., intergenerational equity and population); inadequate reconciliation of economic growth with maintaining the Earth system; and deficient consideration of the relationship with international law. Conceptual mapping identifies education and innovation; governance and implementation; sustainable consumption and production; and addressing the key drivers of climate change as key leverage points. The keyword analysis highlights greater integration within the SDGs than what appears at face value. Keywords “access,” “women,” “resources,” and “finance” feature across the SDGs and provide further leverage points. Targeting these issues will facilitate realization of a high proportion of SDGs and correspondingly could have a disproportional impact on effective SDG implementation. We conclude that the success of the SDGs needs to be evaluated by the extent to which it contributes to human development while advancing protection of “planetary must-haves” for current and future generations.

Key words

implementation, sustainable development goals; systems approach

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087