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Griggs, D., M. Stafford Smith, J. Rockström, M. C. Öhman, O. Gaffney, G. Glaser, N. Kanie, I. Noble, W. Steffen, and P. Shyamsundar. 2014. An integrated framework for sustainable development goals. Ecology and Society 19(4): 49.

An integrated framework for sustainable development goals

1Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University, 2CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, 3Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, 4International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, 5International Council for Science, 6Tokyo Institute of Technology, 7United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, 8Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, 9Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, 10South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics


The United Nations (UN) Rio+20 summit committed nations to develop a set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs) to build on the millennium development goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015. Research now indicates that humanity’s impact on Earth’s life support system is so great that further global environmental change risks undermining long-term prosperity and poverty eradication goals. Socioeconomic development and global sustainability are often posed as being in conflict because of trade-offs between a growing world population, as well as higher standards of living, and managing the effects of production and consumption on the global environment. We have established a framework for an evidence-based architecture for new goals and targets. Building on six SDGs, which integrate development and environmental considerations, we developed a comprehensive framework of goals and associated targets, which demonstrate that it is possible, and necessary, to develop integrated targets relating to food, energy, water, and ecosystem services goals; thus providing a neutral evidence-based approach to support SDG target discussions. Global analyses, using an integrated global target equation, are close to providing indicators for these targets. Alongside development-only targets and environment-only targets, these integrated targets would ensure that synergies are maximized and trade-offs are managed in the implementation of SDGs.
Key words: development; environment; sustainability; sustainable development; sustainable development goals


The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 by 189 nations, were designed to improve the lives of the world‛s poor (Appendix 1, Table A1). Set to expire in 2015, the MDGs have had notable successes, such as achieving the target to halve the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day, though many targets will be unmet (UN 2012a). Despite the absence of any legally binding framework, the MDGs generated considerable public and policy support nationally and among international agencies and foundations, ensuring efficient channeling of significant funds (Vandemoortele 2011). Although economic development in countries such as China has been a major factor, it is also clear that success is partly thanks to the choice of a few focused goals, many with measurable targets (UN 2012a) .

However, a prerequisite for future human development, including poverty reduction, is the stable functioning of Earth‛s life support system. Since 2000, accumulating research shows that this functioning is at risk (Rockström et al. 2009, Steffen et al. 2011), and that further human pressure may lead to large-scale, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes to it (Lenton 2011, Barnosky et al. 2012). Likely impacts on humanity include: diminishing food production, water shortages, extreme weather, ocean acidification, deteriorating ecosystems, and sea-level rise. Without economic, technological, and societal transformations, these authors argued that the potential for large-scale humanitarian crises is significant and could undermine any gains made by meeting the MDGs, necessitating a fundamental re-evaluation of the relationship between people and planet.

In 2012 at the UN’s Rio+20 conference, nations agreed to establish sustainable development goals (SDGs; UN 2012b). Reaching beyond the MDGs, it was agreed that these goals should be universal, applying to all nations. The agreement stressed that the new goals should build logically on the MDGs, with an anticipated 2030 target date. The SDG process provides a unique opportunity to create a unified framework for furthering human prosperity in an era of growing evidence of rising global environmental risks. Science can provide independent guidance on goal and target formulations (Glaser 2012) to help increase the likelihood of meeting policymakers‛ stated sustainable development objectives by guiding sustainable action and being measurable, verifiable, and reportable, and to help them set priorities by identifying the most serious environmental challenges.

The overarching aims of the SDGs, as agreed by nations at Rio+20, can be summarized as poverty elimination, sustainable lifestyles for all, and a stable resilient planetary life-support system. However, it is challenging to define, create, and agree on SDGs that meet these overarching aims while resolving potential interactions between sectoral goals. For example, some approaches to increasing food security may come at a significant cost to the global climate system, in turn putting food security itself at risk in the long term.

This risk was highlighted in a recent United Nations report that recommended SDGs that are integrated, that is, where each goal incorporates social, economic, and environmental dimensions (UNEP 2013). To that end, David Griggs and colleagues (Griggs et al. 2013) first proposed a framework of six integrated sustainable development goals, and these have been echoed in complementary formulations by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN 2013) and the report of the high-level panel of eminent persons (UN 2013); most recently these have been outlined in the recommendations of the Open Working Group (OWG; UN OWG 2014) to the UN General Assembly (Appendix 1). We argue that to maximize synergies and to avoid perverse outcomes such integration must flow through to the targets as well, and we show that it is feasible to formulate exemplar targets for a set of comprehensive SDGs, which integrate these dimensions and provide strong guidance for humanity to prosper in the long term. These targets can be as focused and measurable as MDG targets, and, where necessary, tackle interactions explicitly.


Griggs et al. (2013) based their framing on the need (Folke 1991) to reconceptualize the United Nations’ original sustainable development paradigm of economic development, social development, and environmental protection being “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” (UN 2005:12). Given the scale of humanity’s impact on the planet, they argued that long-term sustainable development needs to be conceptualized in terms of an economy and society sustained within Earth’s life-support system (Folke 1991; Fig. 1). As a result, Griggs et al. (2013) argued that the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition of sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission 1987:clause 1 of Section IV Conclusions) also needs reframing in the Anthropocene as follows: ‘development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends’.

Securing stable Holocene-like conditions on Earth, in terms of sea level, stratospheric ozone, air pollution, eutrophication, temperature, ice-sheet stability, carbon-sink stability, etc., provides a scientific reference point (Steffen et al. 2011) for a set of what Griggs et al. (2013) called ‘planetary must-haves,’ which are priorities for the Earth system, here termed global sustainability objectives (GSOs). These environmental priorities were derived in part from a recent analysis, which sought to quantify nine boundaries beyond which it would be unsafe to transgress without risking large-scale health and economic impacts (Rockström et al. 2009). Acknowledging uncertainties, they identified seven priority GSOs (Appendix 1, Table A2), which are associated with strong scientific evidence for their role in providing the environmental conditions, from planetary to local, necessary to support long-term human prosperity (Steffen et al. 2011) and for which it is possible to estimate global environmental targets. Importantly, in outlining them in more detail (Appendix 1, Table A2), we have attempted to minimize the number of potential targets, a lesson from the MDG experience, to those with high credibility in existing international processes or in recent scientific literature. The SDGs must now be linked to human development.


In 2012, nations asserted that “poverty eradication...promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of...sustainable development” (United Nations 2012b:clause 4). There is understandable reluctance for extensive reshaping of existing human development goals (Appendix 1, Table A1), but it is now widely accepted (UN OWG 2013, UN SDSN 2013) that some changes to the MDGs are essential. Some targets have been met and other targets are out-of-date or can now be better defined, for example, success in meeting MDG target 1A, i.e., halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is < US$1.25 a day, means that this must be updated, e.g., eliminate extreme poverty by 2030, target 1.1 in OWG 2014. Moreover, MDGs were not designed to be universal, but, e.g., MDG3 on gender equality can now be extended to all countries, and beyond education, see goal five in OWG 2014. Updates can also draw on new knowledge and include new elements such as the need for universal access to clean energy (Birol 2012), the social benefits of reducing relative inequality within countries (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009), and access to information technology.

In framing a post-MDG suite of social objectives, a ‘social foundation’ of 11 components were proposed before the Rio summit to complement the ‘environmental ceiling’ of the GSOs noted above, defining a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Leach et al. 2013:84). Regardless of exactly how they are expressed (UN SDSN 2013, UN HLP 2013, UN OWG 2014), this provides a suite of economic and social objectives that can be brought together with the global sustainability objectives to form a critical component of the new SDGs, i.e., GSO targets + socioeconomic targets = SDGs.


Reducing poverty and hunger, as well as a sustained improvement in health and human wellbeing will remain the driving principles for any future SDGs. Griggs et al. (2013) argued for the six SDGs listed in Appendix 1, Table A1, but provided scant details on potential targets.

Why this particular six? This analysis was framed pragmatically and with a particular focus on long-term, Earth-system stability. The MDG experience shows that a small number of goals is essential for policy and public focus, and this is what is sought by the 2012 Rio outcomes document (UN 2012); hence some systems judgment must be applied to select a necessary and sufficient set of goals that together draw many other indicators along in their wake. The focus of development is on peoples’ livelihoods, in particular poverty eradication, so this must underpin the SDGs (hence SDG 1). Furthermore, development is closely related to lifestyles and consumption, which are linked directly to the pressures on the planet. Then, closely linked to poverty eradication in all analyses (Leach et al. 2013, UN SDSN 2013, UN HLP 2013), people have fundamental needs in terms of food, water, and energy (SDGs 2-4). These have profound sustainability implications. As widely acknowledged (Brundtland Commission 1987, UN 2012), the fundamental needs of humanity are underpinned by natural ecosystems (SDG 5). Last, the importance of institutional issues and governance for development have long been recognized (as indicated by MDG 8), and have been re-emphasized in recent research on the governance of the Earth system (SDG 6) (Biermann et al. 2012).

In total, this provides six foundational goals with scope for further subdivision, particularly within SDG 1. The SDSN suggested 10 goals (UN SDSN 2013), the UN report of the high-level panel listed 12 (UN HLP 2013), and the Open Working Group (UN OWG 2014) have 17; all cases are generally aligned with the 6 proposed by Griggs et al. (2013), but with more subdivision (Appendix 1, Table A1). We argue that there is virtue in focus. In the end, negotiations may legitimately suggest others or organize these six differently, but any modifications should ensure that the core GSOs are all encompassed along with socioeconomic objectives, while maintaining focus and meeting other principles laid out below. Otherwise, the SDGs risk failing to meet the stated policy aims in the long term. Therefore we now develop the logic for integrated targets around the six goals of Griggs et al. (2013), which should appear in some form within any final set to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015. The OWG (2014) proposes reasonably well-defined social and economic goals with some well-quantified targets. However, the environmental sustainability goals are not yet well integrated in their proposal, and quantified environmental targets are almost completely missing.


The MDG experience has shown that quantifiable targets could be even more important than the goals for focusing efforts. We highlight two issues. First, some targets can safely aim at a single social or an environmental outcome without specifying interactions, but some targets should deliberately address interactions, providing a mechanism to deal with potential synergies and trade-offs, where trade-offs are taken to mean unintended consequences of pursuing targets independently. Second, targets need implementation at multiple scales and across sectors.

We are particularly concerned with interactions between social and biophysical targets. There are essential social development targets that have no direct interactions with global sustainability concerns; for example, many equality, education, and empowerment issues can be tackled without significant environmental sustainability implications, notwithstanding that they may contribute to future human capital for achieving better sustainable development outcomes. We likewise suggest that there are some environmental targets in which social implications are at most second-order concerns. These types of targets (Fig. 2: biophysical and social rings) can be implemented without the overhead of considering interactions.

However, several contentious issues in the context of sustainable development result from perceived trade-offs between socioeconomic development and global environmental sustainability, for example between energy use and climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions or land-use change for food production and biodiversity loss. In these cases, addressing socioeconomic and environmental sustainability targets independently will lead to undesired and long-term costly outcomes (UNEP 2013). Socioeconomic goals may be met in the short term but damage long-term sustainability. Alternatively, blind attention to environmental targets may distract from socioeconomic development. Our approach is to identify targets, which focus on the interdependencies between two or more issues so that they are tackled in an integrated way, delivering the desired outcomes for both.

For example, the UN OWG (2014) proposals include a target (8.1) on economic growth as well as a separate assertion (notes to their goal 13) that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s targets for climate change should be met. In the absence of significant decarbonization of the economy, we know these targets are incompatible: in fact Rogelj et al. (2013) explored the trade-offs between the UN’s commitment to clean energy for all and commitments to a 2°C climate target. They noted that the socioeconomic development objective of sufficient energy to meet potential global GDP growth is linked to a global sustainability objective of restraining greenhouse gas emissions within 2°C are linked according to the relationship:

CO2 emissions = CI * EI * GDP,

where CI is the carbon intensity (CO2 release per unit energy) and EI is the energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP) averaged globally. If a particular GDP trajectory, with consequent energy use, is to be achieved while restraining CO2 emissions, then a constrained trend in CI * EI must be achieved globally. This creates a clear operational pair of targets for the indicators CI and EI, which express the trade-off between these objectives at a global level, which can then be implemented in various ways regionally. The UN OWG (2014) does address this trade-off, but weakly, their target 8.4 aims to “endeavor to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation” without specifying anything quantitative; and target 7.2 aims to increase the share of renewable energy, whereas 7.3 provides the only quantified target in doubling the rate of energy efficiency by 2030. The lessons of the MDGs highlight the need for clear and quantified targets: in Appendix 1, Table A3, we show one set of possible values under SDG 4, but given a policy decision on the acceptable level of climate change, specific target values for CI and EI can be proposed, for reasonably expected rates of GDP growth, and these can be monitored to help countries to focus on policies to reduce carbon intensity and improve energy efficiency. Of course, a desired level of GDP growth should not be an end in itself, but merely one means to the end of advancing human well-being.

This example can be generalized to create a simplified intuitive relationship to derive integrated global targets (inverted from the example above):

socioeconomic objective = k * biophysical objective,

where k expresses the critical trade-off between biophysical and socioeconomic objectives. This Integrated Global Target Equation may be seen as a generalized version of the IPAT equation, i.e., Human Impact (I) on the environment equals the product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T) or Kaya identities, i.e., an equation relating factors that determine the level of human impact on climate, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions (section 3.1 Nakićenović and Swart 2000), but here deployed for the purpose of identifying trade-offs. The parameter k may be compound.

We provide a preliminary analysis of the potential use of the Integrated Global Target relationship in the specific examples of food and water security, where OWG (2014) does not yet identify clear biophysical targets. A detailed analysis on trade-offs is required in each case to confirm target values, but we can propose which integrated indicators are needed. The equivalent relationships for food and water security (SDGs 2, 3) concern the trade-offs between increasing food availability, i.e. social objective, while meeting ‘planetary must haves’ on land use conversion, biodiversity, phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, climate, and water use, i.e., biophysical objectives (see Fig.2 in Foley et al. 2011; Appendix 1, Table A3). Acknowledging that there are other factors driving availability in the global food system (Ericksen et al. 2009), the Integrated Global Target Equation may here be written as:

food consumption = FCI * AP * resources,

where food consumption intensity (FCI, i.e., food consumed per unit food produced) and agricultural productivity (AP, i.e., food produced per unit resource used) with respect to key resources are primary determinants of the trade-off. Aspects of FCI and AP can be considered under SDG 2, with the water aspect a focus of SDG 3.

For SDG 2 targets, reduced waste in food use is a vital and reasonably uncontroversial element of FCI, considering this is estimated to be 30-40% of production (Godfray et al. 2010), e.g., the European Parliament has adopted a resolution on food waste, which set a reduction target of 50% of all food waste by 2025 and a 50% reduction in all post-harvest food loss and waste by 2030 has been proposed globally (Lipinski et al. 2013). This is recognized in OWG (2014) as target 12.3. For AP, key resources other than water are land, and P and N; these are not addressed explicitly or quantitatively in OWG (2014). Land-use conversion is a significant driver of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, especially in the tropics, for relatively little gain in production (West et al. 2010, Foley et al. 2011), so we propose that ceasing land clearance in the tropics should be an eventual biophysical objective at the global level under SDG 5. Overuse of P and N, leading to water pollution among other effects (Carpenter and Bennett 2011, de Vries et al. 2013), drives the remaining key trade-off, which can be addressed by increasing the indicator AP (Foley et al. 2011, Garnett et al. 2013). A global target for 2020 of a relative improvement in full-chain nutrient (P and N) use efficiency, dominated by agriculture, by 20% has been proposed (Sutton et al. 2013) and is probably feasible with existing technologies (van der Velde et al. 2013). As for SDG 4, a global target must be approached in differentiated ways below the global level.

For water security (SDG 3), irrigated agriculture accounts for 92% of the total withdrawals of water from rivers, lakes, and groundwater (Hoekstra and Mekonnen 2012), totalling some 2000 km3 yr‑1 consumptive use of freshwater (blue water), which is half the proposed GSO for sustainable freshwater use (Appendix 1, Table A2). Agricultural production will have to increase 50-70% by 2050 to secure adequate access to food for all people in the world (IAASTD 2008). On current practices, estimates show that this will increase the pressure on global freshwater from the current global use of ~7000 km3 yr‑1 (2000 ’blue water‚ for irrigation and 5000 ‘green water’ for rain-fed agriculture) to 12000 km3 yr‑1 (Falkenmark et al. 2009). Thus, increases in global food demand imply a major water trade-off between irrigation requirements and freshwater needed to secure other ecosystem services (Bennett et al. 2009).

The degree of trade-off between competing water demands, for food, ecosystems, and society, is largely determined by water productivity (WP) in agriculture, giving the Integrated Global Target Equation:

agricultural production = WP * water extracted,

where WP (m3/ton) varies between different crops, management systems, and hydro-climatic zones and has been extensively studied from different perspectives (e.g., Brauman et al. 2013, Hanasaki et al. 2013, Hayashi et al. 2013). Despite this complexity, at a global scale, WP for basic food crops, such as wheat, maize, rice, sorghum, and millets, has a remarkably similar average of ~1500 m3 ton‑1, though with a wide range: ~900-5000 m3 ton‑1 (Falkenmark and Rockström 2004). For an adequate diet, the vegetarian portion of foods, i.e., vegetables, roots, pulses, grain, oil, and sugar crops, ~80% of an average global diet, has a weighted global average WP of ~1100-1400 m3 ton-1.

For agriculture to provide for a world population of around 9 billion people in 2050, and still meet global sustainability criteria for freshwater use, the global water use for food would have to increase to no more than 9000 km3 yr‑1, i.e., no more than 2000 km3 yr‑1 more ‘blue water’ than today, rather than the 12000 km3 yr‑1 that the business-as-usual approach suggests (Falkenmark et al. 2009). This translates to an integrated water target for WP of 1000 m3 ton‑1 for all food crops, which is a 9-29% improvement on today, i.e., the 1100-1400 m3 ton‑1 cited above; agricultural research suggests this is an attainable WP average even with current technologies (Molden 2007). Paying attention to this interaction thus permits considerable synergies between SDGs 2 and 3, producing more ‘crop-per-drop’ through improved agricultural systems. However, spatial variability means that improved water use must be implemented with local contextual sensitivity and will have complex between-region implications, including potential trade in virtual water (Calzadilla et al. 2010, Hoekstra 2011).

At present GSOs for water, nitrogen phosphorus, and land are entirely missing in OWG (2014); some of the integrative targets identified above are weakly included (Appendix 1, Table A3), but without quantification in most cases. The only quantified one is 12.3: to halve per capita global food waste. This is despite the fact that these three SDG areas are the easiest in which to apply the Integrated Global Target Equation.

Although there are analogous issues for SDGs 1, 5, and 6, the simple division into environmental, social, and integrated targets is less immediately evident. Figure 2 illustrates some specific examples, and the Appendix outlines some examples of possible approaches to these in association with Table A3, drawing noncomprehensively on OWG (2014).

The domain of SDG 1 is dominated by social targets, many of which have no more than weak direct interactions with global sustainability; we do not address these further here, important as they are, and despite the fact that there are opportunities to manage synergies and trade-offs among these also. However, some social targets expressed by OWG (2014) could affect sustainability. Appendix Table A3 explores some examples under the topics of health, equitable consumption, and disasters. The environmental targets are often an agglomeration of GSOs in relation to their potential impacts on social targets; most integrative targets require further quantification.

For SDG 5, the intent is essentially to deliver a growing level of provisioning and regulatory, and perhaps also cultural, ecosystem services while maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem function, and the operational elements of k require management to reduce the impacts on biodiversity of each unit of ecosystem services used. This in turn requires the proper valuation of the services to maximize the efficiency of other aspects of k in the Integrated Global Target Equation.

Finally, SDG 6 relating to governance is a different type of goal, because governance provides part of the enabling conditions for the other goals. Nonetheless, examples of governance targets, which are primarily aimed at biophysical issues, or at socioeconomic issues, or seek to integrate these, are provided in Appendix Table A3. Issue-specific governance arrangements could be tailored for each SDG, usually at subglobal levels, such as implementing integrated water resources management (OWG 2014). More generally, Biermann et al. (2014) argued that three types of governance must be considered: (1) good governance, i.e., the processes of decision making and their institutional foundations, (2) effective governance, i.e., the capacity of countries to pursue sustainable development, and (3) equitable governance with distributive outcomes. The integration of environmental and socioeconomic policies at all levels to ensure that the other SDGs are achieved would contribute to effective governance. By contrast, the establishment of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development by the UN General Assembly in July 2013 was an important step toward good governance, as might introducing new decision-making mechanisms, such as a stronger reliance on qualified majority voting (Biermann et al. 2012, Kanie et al. 2013).

Objectives may also interact in a synergistic way (Shindell et al. 2012). We argue that it is less crucial to capture this formally in the targets, although there may be significant efficiencies to be gained by doing so. For example, it is known that the use of fuel efficient or LPG-based cooking stoves could improve the health of poor women and children by reducing acute respiratory disorders. Similarly, access to clean water and sanitation results in a significant decline in diarrhoea incidence. It would be possible, therefore, to articulate a synergistic target such as ‘X% increase in access to clean energy and Y% increase in access to clean water and sanitation, at the same time contribute Z% reductions in incidence of key diseases’.

Of course the intuitive relationship for trade-offs above is very simplified, but it provides guidance commensurate with the level of precision and detail appropriate at a global level, summarized in Figure 2. It also hides a richness of interpretation below the global level to which we now turn.


The energy case above usefully exemplifies differentiation among regions: as Rogelj et al. 2013 points out, this will be fundamental to achieving the targets in the most cost-effective manner. For example, EI can drop quickest in fast developing regions, such as Asia, caused by rapid turnover of the capital stock, whereas solar or wind power is likely to provide a bigger contribution via CI in many developed nations. We thus envisage that the global targets would be interpreted at national levels in negotiated ways, and the totality of the response reviewed regularly in a global forum, such as the UN High Level Political Forum. Discussions about whether the global target will be met can take place, and, if targets will not be met, where the most cost and socially effective interventions can be made at more local levels. This is a necessary adaptive management and adaptive governance process in the face of uncertainty in many parts of the complex, multiscale social-ecological system.

Many GSOs have a spatial dimension (Steffen and Stafford Smith 2013), such that they can be implemented regionally in ways that are significantly more efficient than averaging global targets, and such that additional cobenefits can thus be achieved. For example, the management of phosphorus use (GSO 5) to intensify food production (SDG 2) and minimize ecosystem impacts (SDG 5; Carpenter and Bennett 2011) could be addressed at the same time as deliberately and constructively, and possibly more efficiently, seeking to ensure food security in poorer nations, by redistributing phosphorus use from excess to deficit regions. Comparable considerations are possible for the nitrogen cycle (Conant et al. 2013), water (Hoekstra 2011), land-use change (Thomas et al. 2012), and pollution.

As a result, it is clear that there will need to be global and national level expressions of many targets, whether these are simple biophysical or social targets, or integrated ones (Fig. 2). For example, the global water consumptive use target of no more than 4000 km3 y‑1 would be complemented by regional targets of withdrawing no more than 25-50%, specified for the region (Appendix 1, Table A2), of the mean monthly flow of any individual river basin to sustain minimum environmental water flow requirements, food waste targets would require differential implementation at national and subnational levels (Lipinski et al. 2013), and, although some Aichi targets aim at the global level, others must be specified nationally, e.g., in terms of species richness or habitat protection.

There are also other possible modes of implementation; the Rio+20 conference was notable for the presence of networks outside the level of national government, whether in industry, nongovernmental organizations, or cities. Given that many of the SDGs will play out through the actions of the growing world population living in cities, global networks of cities (Seitzinger et al. 2012) may also share subglobal targets and the expertise to achieve them.


Development and implementation of SDG targets has the potential to be a genuine coproduction between science and policy (Leach et al. 2012), in which science is in service to society. Recent scientific findings articulate strong reasons why we must pay attention to certain global thresholds or other biophysical boundaries, even though it is ultimately a social decision whether to accept the risks of transgressing them or not. At the same time, local conditions and aspirations play large roles in determining how individual countries or other entities wish to respond in detail; this is a bottom up element, which engenders local ownership of the solutions to the local expressions of these targets. Science can continue to play a ‘trusted advisor’ role by assisting to mediate the local targets and whether these are likely to meet the global intentions.

Taking lessons from the experience of the MDGs, it is important to have focus and measurability. We have drawn on diverse areas of recent research to identify a set of SDGs and related indicators with some targets that, if met, would ensure dramatic progress toward sustainable development, with spillover benefits in many other areas. Critically, not only does each SDG integrate economic, social, and environmental dimensions, but some of the underlying targets do as well, explicitly highlighting trade-offs and synergies that require attention. This has been achieved by developing targets that focus on the interdependencies between two or more issues so that they are tackled in an integrated way, delivering the desired outcomes for both.

Many of these targets are already individually embedded in international agreements, so that the SDGs as proposed provide a coordinating and synthesizing framework (see footnote to Appendix 1, Table A2). Research efforts, under initiatives such as Future Earth (Glaser 2012), should continue to elaborate other key indicators and targets for existing and future pressures and initiate appropriate monitoring, evaluation, and implementation schemes. Meanwhile, we urge policy makers at all levels to embrace a much more unified environmental and socioeconomic framing for the SDGs along the lines outlined, which goes beyond the good beginning provided by OWG (2014). One of the biggest challenges ahead lies in defining and then implementing key sets of integrated targets. Sustainable development goals can be the leverage that facilitates enhanced collaboration among government institutions to this end.


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Our work was supported by Future Earth and the International Council for Science (ICSU).


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Address of Correspondent:
David Griggs
Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University,
VIC 3800,
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Figure1  | Figure2  | Appendix1