Feature Story

Leave no SDG behind

September 12, 2016

The SDG credo “leave no one behind” also applies to the SDGs themselves. They are indivisible. We have to deliver on all of them if we want to succeed. Photo: JLwarehouse/Shutterstock

By Nebojsa Nakicenovic and Caroline Zimm

2015 marked a historic turning point. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) unanimously adopted by the United Nations last September provide an aspirational narrative and specific targets for human development: a world free from hunger, injustice and absolute poverty; a world with universal education, health and employment; a world with inclusive economic growth, based on transparency, dignity and equity.

The 17 SDGs’ call for “global citizenship and shared responsibility” and provide legitimacy for a new global social contract for a grand transformation toward a sustainable future. They fully acknowledge the scientific advances achieved during the last three decades that have established compelling evidence that otherwise, as the UN general assembly warned, “the survival of many societies, and of the biological support systems of the planet, is at risk.” Humanity has pushed the Earth system and its global commons to their limits and the SDGs provide us with the long-needed paradigm shift towards realising the opportunity of a sustainable future for all.

The climate agreement adopted in Paris last December has further strengthened understanding that our society depends on sustainable stewardship of the global commons, shared by us all – and particularly on the stability of the climate system. The Earth system can no longer be viewed as an economic or social externality. Last year we moved beyond the traditional view of global commons as merely the common heritage of humankind outside national jurisdiction. Now we must move beyond national sovereignty to deal with the Earth system and human systems holistically, as the SDGs require. The Paris agreement is a huge step in the right direction.

Time is running out, so we must take urgent action to implement the UN 2030 agenda. Just 14 years are left – less than the wink of an eye in the history of human development, or of the Holocene’s stable Earth systems. But where to start? Which of the 17 goals, which of the 169 targets should be tackled first? Policy makers, the media, civil society and scientists all ask these questions.

However, the 2030 agenda stresses that the SDGs are indivisible and integrated – and cumulative, since efforts to achieve them must be sustained well into the second half of the century, especially in preserving the regulating function of the global commons, Some of the goals, such as SDG13 on climate, must operate on a time scale longer than century.

Moreover, there are interactions between and among the SDGs. For example, achieving SDG7, the energy goal, could jeopardise SDGs related to water, health and climate. Tackled in harmony, however, these goals can support one another: there would, for example, be clear health benefits from reducing indoor and outdoor air pollution through global decarbonisation. Jointly implementing all the SDGs would contribute both to further human development and to safeguarding the commons and the stability of the Earth systems. Importantly, joint implementation that avoids silo-type thinking would be cheaper and faster than tackling them separately.

All these goals should be achieved in such a way as to maximise synergies and minimise investment costs and trade-offs. The SDG credo “leave no one behind” also applies to the SDGs themselves. They are indivisible. We have to deliver on all of them if we want to succeed.

The SDGs are very ambitious but it appears that tackling them together will help humanity make rapid progress and enter a new era for human societies and the Earth system. Yet, many interactions – and their scope – are unknown, and this hampers holistic policy making. We lack clear understanding of the benefits of achieving SDGs and of costs of inaction, especially when it comes to regional and national differences. We urgently need this fact-based information.

We have a plethora of knowledge, but need new ways to synthesise, integrate and share it so as to use its full potential in support of the SDGs and the global commons. Science – one of the strongest voices of the environment in governance – must become more active and leave its ivory tower to engage more intensely with other stakeholders.

This is why we at IIASA, together with the Stockholm Resilience Center, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network have launched the scientific initiative The World in 2050 (TWI2050), designed to provide the scientific knowledge to support the policy process and implementation of the 2030 agenda.

TWI2050 aims to address the full spectrum of transformational challenges in fulfilling the SDGs in an integrated way so as to avoid potential conflicts among them and reap the benefits of potential synergies through achieving them in unison. This requires a systemic approach.

The time for “climate-only” or “economic development-only” approaches is over. We urgently need an integrated understanding of the processes that account for the inter-linkages between the economy, demography, technology, environment, climate, human development, all global commons and planetary boundaries. TWI2050 brings together leading policymakers, analysts, and modelling and analytical teams to collaborate in developing pathways towards the sustainable futures and policy frameworks necessary for achieving the needed transformational change.

Such a grand transformation goes beyond a purely technology-centred view of the world or the substitution of one technology by another. It encompasses social and behavioural changes at all levels, as well as technological ones. Incremental changes, now being experienced in some areas, are useful but will not suffice: we have waited too long and the window for action is closing rapidly in some domains including such global commons as climate. We will need radical changes in human behaviour and technological paradigms. TWI2050 will look beyond 2030 to 2050 – and, in some cases, even to 2100 – to draw a vision of the world where the SDGs are eventually fulfilled.

The SDGs and the Paris agreement show what institutional international governance can achieve with joined forces. We have entered a new era of global governance, acknowledging the complexity and the connectivity of human development with the global commons and the Earth system. TWI2050 hopes to serve the global community with the best science available in tackling these key global challenges for humankind.

Nebojsa Nakicenovic is deputy director general and deputy CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

Caroline Zimm is a researcher at Transitions to New Technologies Program, IIASA.