Three necessary conditions for establishing effective Sustainable Development Goals in the Anthropocene

Norström, A. V., A. Dannenberg, G. McCarney, M. Milkoreit, F. Diekert, G. Engström, R. Fishman, J. Gars, E. Kyriakopoolou, V. Manoussi, K. Meng, M. Metian, M. Sanctuary, M. Schlüter, M. Schoon, L. Schultz, and M. Sjöstedt • 24-07-2014
Ecology and Society 19(3): 8.
Three necessary conditions for establishing effective Sustainable Development Goals in the Anthropocene

The purpose of the United Nations-guided process to establish Sustainable Development Goals is to galvanize governments and civil society to rise to the interlinked environmental, societal, and economic challenges we face in the Anthropocene. We argue that the process of setting Sustainable Development Goals should take three key aspects into consideration. First, it should embrace an integrated social-ecological system perspective and acknowledge the key dynamics that such systems entail, including the role of ecosystems in sustaining human wellbeing, multiple cross-scale interactions, and uncertain thresholds. Second, the process needs to address trade-offs between the ambition of goals and the feasibility in reaching them, recognizing biophysical, social, and political constraints. Third, the goal-setting exercise and the management of goal implementation need to be guided by existing knowledge about the principles, dynamics, and constraints of social change processes at all scales, from the individual to the global. Combining these three aspects will increase the chances of establishing and achieving effective Sustainable Development Goals.Key words: social change; social-ecological systems; Sustainable Development Goals; transformations

There is a broad and active process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the expiring United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ( provides an online repository of all the publicly available proposals for future SDGs). The decision to establish SDGs was made at the UN Rio+20 conference, based on a proposal by the governments of Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru. Nations and international organizations are now working to define what such goals should be, with the UN playing an important role in these developments. Three of the SDG-linked initiatives are the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (a 30-member group of the UN General Assembly that was established in January 2013 with the objective to prepare a proposal on SDGs and report back to the General Assembly in 2014), the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the post-2015 agenda, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. A priority is to identify a post-2015 agenda, as 2015 is the year the MDG objectives are to be achieved. The MDGs have been successful in focusing efforts on, and encouraging a global political consensus around, issues such as hunger, gender inequality, poverty, and disease. A key to their success is that the MDGs are a short list of clear and coherent goals that have focused on well-recognized global problems. Initial indications suggest that the SDGs will also be structured as a relatively short set of coherent, aspirational goals. Various political actors have put forward proposals containing different numbers and types of goals, but most proposals seem to be consolidating around the core issues of poverty, gender equality, education, health, food security, water and sanitation, energy, jobs, natural resources, governance, and climate change. However, the MDGs have been criticized for their narrow focus on the human aspects of development, while overlooking the importance of natural capital and ecosystem services (Waage et al. 2010). Further, the existing MDG framework fails to capture the complex interdependencies between the goals, and there is little cross-referencing between targets and indicators (Waage et al. 2010). The MDGs have also been criticized for placing obligations only on developing countries, and for not having the universal ambition of transforming sustainability pathways.

The new goals are likely to expand the MDGs (Sachs 2012), but if the SDGs are to galvanize governments and civil society to confront the interlinked social, economic, and ecological challenges of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2011), they need to avoid the shortcomings of the MDGs (Griggs et al. 2013). The Anthropocene is the new geological epoch (Crutzen 2002), which is characterized by humanity having become the dominant force of planetary change (Steffen et al. 2011). Today, humans are changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere (IPCC 2013), have modified or transformed most of the Earths’ terrestrial and marine ecosystems (Halpern et al. 2008, Ellis et al. 2010), have substantially altered the flows of fresh water (Vörösmarty et al. 2010), have changed elemental cycles and flows of mineral resources (Steffen et al. 2004), and have radically changed the distribution of plants and animals (MEA 2006). By many measures, the changes humanity has caused in the last 50 years are now at or beyond the variations seen through the entire Holocene—the present geological era starting 10,000 years ago that has provided the relatively stable environment that has enabled humanity’s development of agriculture and complex societies. At the same time, people are fundamentally dependent on the capacity of the biosphere to provide services for human wellbeing and societal development (MEA 2006). As the human population continues to grow and the ecological and environmental impacts of human economic activity increase, our effect on the biosphere could threaten to exceed vital planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009), beyond which critical tipping points in the Earth System may be transgressed (Barnosky et al. 2012, Hughes et al. 2013). Navigating the Anthropocene in order to steer away from such thresholds will require major shifts in values and beliefs, patterns of social behavior, and multilevel governance and management regimes (Biermann et al. 2010). Clearly, the complex governance demands of the Anthropocene provide an important context for the framing of the future SDGs but clash with the idea of simple, modular goals for specific, bounded development problems.

We argue that the formulation, substance, and implementation of the SDGs should be framed by three key insights from a growing transdisciplinary body of work that is fusing ecology, economics, psychology, global governance, and socio-technological systems studies. First, human and natural systems are inseparably linked and nested across scales, and should be dealt with as social-ecological systems. Second, SDGs must acknowledge and navigate trade-offs between goal ambition and goal feasibility. Third, both the formulation of the SDGs and all implementation efforts should be guided by existing knowledge about the drivers, dynamics, and limitations of social change processes at all scales, from the individual to the global. In the remainder, we discuss some of the key implications these three insights should have for the formulation and implementation of the SDGs.

Tags: Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),socio-ecological systems,transition and transformation