In 2015, 193 countries committed to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a so-called blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. The goals address various important global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change, and environmental degradation.
But with just ten years left to meet the SDGs, is the world on track? Not quite: At the current rate, most SDGs will not be met by 2030. As the deadline edges closer, just two of the 17 goals — eliminating preventable deaths among newborns and children under five and getting children into primary schools — are likely to be achieved.
There is still a lot to do in such a short time and according to a new study published on 1 January in Nature, the blueprint needs constant remodelling (1). Therefore, tracking progress — not just on a national level, but locally — is crucial to guide future policy development. To this end, the authors propose a systematic method for assessing progress.
Quantifying progress in sustainable development
The team of researchers from the USA and China developed a new method to quantify progress in achieving the SDGs at both the national and sub-national level. The study focused on China and found that between 2000 and 2015, the country’s overall SDG score improved. However, owing to its vast size, the researchers discovered large disparities between the country’s developed and developing regions.
For example, in the 2000s, East China — which has been the focal point of China’s economic boom — had a higher SDG Index score than the more rural west; In 2015, south China had a higher SDG Index score than industrialized and agricultural-intensive north China.
The same method could be applied to other countries. Importantly, the scientists didn’t just look at a snapshot but assessed progress a regional level over time — the first assessment of its kind.
Truly sustainable development requires a holistic approach
As populations grow, countries are tasked with ever-increasing challenges. Natural resources such as water and energy are becoming more scarce, lands are being rapidly degraded, and income and gender inequities are intensifying. Furthermore, economies often develop unevenly, so much like politics, sustainability is a local issue.
Indeed, the researchers uncovered striking regional disparities between those more developed and many that are still developing. In other words, even though a nation may be moving towards a more sustainable future, there will be gains and losses in the fight against poverty, inequality, climate change, and environmental degradation at the regional level.
As senior author Prof Jianguo “Jack” Liu, at Michigan state university explains: “We have learned that sustainability’s progress is dynamic and that sometimes gains in one important area can come at costs to another area, tradeoffs that can be difficult to understand but can ultimately hobble progress”.
“Whether it’s protecting precious natural resources, making a positive economic change or reducing inequality — it isn’t a static score. We must carefully take a holistic view to be sure progress in one area isn’t compromised by setbacks in other areas.”
While new methods like this will help to more accurately monitor progress towards achieving the SDGs, one major challenge remains: the goals are still a voluntary effort. While data have been collected for more than 50 years and are now reported every quarter by national statistics offices, however, it is not mandatory for countries to report their progress in meeting their goals for sustainable development. Therefore, the SDGs are unlikely to be achieved unless they are viewed as something that must happen.
(1) Xu, Z. et al. Assessing progress towards sustainable development over space and time. Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1846-3