SDG Knowledge Weekly: Networked Goals and Networks for Transformation
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The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report finds that movement in the wrong direction on climate, inequalities, biodiversity and waste is pushing global society towards a tipping point, but concerted efforts that leverage interactions between the SDGs and their targets can have cascading effects that alter current trajectories.

A paper in 'Sustainability' describes a new approach to partnerships, identifying a potential mismatch between the types of partnerships requisite to achieving transformations and those that are arising under current approaches and trends.

A third paper, published in 'Sustainable Development,' uses a network analysis developed by the International Council for Science to show that direct efforts focused on SDGs 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land) and 5 (gender equality) would best leverage interconnections across the Goal framework.a

This knowledge brief reviews three publications that touch on the need to transform current development pathways and paradigms to meet the ambition of the SDGs. It identifies key nexus points in the 2030 Agenda that leverage synergistic relationships between goals and thematic areas, which can accelerate progress.

The central piece of literature in the spotlight is the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), released on 11 September 2019. The report finds that society’s current development model is not sustainable, and that progress made in the last two decades is in danger of being negated by worsening social inequalities and potentially irreversible degradation of the natural environment. Titled, ‘The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development,’ the report stresses that governments, business, communities and civil society need to transform a number of human activity areas, including food, energy, consumption and cities. The transformations, a media advisory notes, are predicated on increased investment in science for sustainability and in natural and social science institutions based in developing countries.

The 2019 GDSR is divided into four chapters:

  1. ‘The transformative power of sustainable development,’ which outlines progress to date provides context on the potential of the 2030 Agenda;
  2. ‘Transformations,’ noting four levers of change and six entry points through which change can be catalyzed;
  3. ‘Science for sustainable development,’ highlighting the role and potential of harnessing science in society, and how science partners can enable transformation; and
  4. ‘Call to action,’ outlining 20 interventions to accelerate progress towards the SDGs in the coming decade.

The analysis suggests that movement in the wrong direction on climate, inequalities, biodiversity and waste is pushing global society towards a tipping point, but that concerted efforts that leverage interactions between the SDGs and their targets (some of which are outlined below), can have cascading effects that alter current trajectories. Through four levers—governance, economy and finance, individual and collective action, and science and technology—the report identifies the following entry points, on which it offers specific calls to action:

  • Human well-being and capabilities
  • Sustainable and just economies
  • Food systems and nutrition patterns
  • Energy decarbonization with universal access
  • Urban and peri-urban development
  • Global environmental commons

Driving home the need for action, a foreword by UN Secretary-General António Guterres underscores that “the future is determined by what we do now and the window of opportunity is closing fast.” This edition of the quadrennial GSDR is not only the first of its kind since the adoption of the SDGs, but is also the first to be authored by the Independent Group of Scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General. The report will inform the upcoming SDG Summit which takes place on 24 and 25 September 2019. A short video on the GSDR is also available, here. Additional GSDR coverage on the SDG Knowledge Hub is also available, here.

A paper published in Sustainability on 10 September 2019 describes a new approach to driving SDG transformations through partnerships. Author David Horan identifies a potential mismatch between the types of partnerships requisite to achieving transformations and those that are arising under current approaches and trends. Horan argues that, while a bottom-up approach can deliver some of the partnerships needed, there are five specific problems with this model: 1) compensation for “losers,” 2) partnering capacity, 3) short time horizons, 4) inadequate coordination mechanisms, and 5) misaligned incentives.

The paper outlines the history of means of implementation for sustainable development, noting that efforts to implement Agenda 21 in the 1990s centered on a narrow base of government stakeholders “who primarily sought to address transnational environmental problems through policy coherence and international development through trade.” It notes that, while these efforts resulted in several UN conventions, it was the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 that “paved the way for a different approach based on voluntary transnational partnerships involving UN agencies, international organizations, donors and international non-governmental organizations.”

The paper argues that the challenge with the SDGs’ seven means of implementation—finance, technology, trade, capacity building, policy coherence, partnerships and data—is working across sectors and mitigating trade-offs whereby progress on one development Goal is achieved at the expense of another. Through the case of energy decarbonization, Horan cites examples of partnerships that have overcome these challenges, such as the Just Transition Fund, which creates economic opportunities for coal mining communities affected by decarbonization initiatives. The partnership, Horan describes, not only brings together potentially conflicting stakeholder groups, but also works across several areas of the 2030 Agenda, including SDGs 4 and 9, to facilitate transformation in these communities.

The paper also highlights policy tools such as transfers, regulation and public investment, which governments can use to strengthen the current framework and orchestrate missing partnerships. Horan’s analysis suggests that implementation of missing partnerships should be government-led, but involve other stakeholders identified as relevant for transition partnerships.

A third knowledge piece, published in Sustainable Development, shows that direct efforts focused on Goals 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land) and 5 (gender equality) “would reinforce the virtuous circles” and trigger transformative progress. The paper is written by researchers at the University of Bath, and uses a network analysis developed by the International Council for Science (ICSU) to conduct “a quantitative theoretical analysis of the SDGs from a systems perspective.”

The paper’s analysis uses a model that examines the outcomes of efforts aimed at tackling each Goal directly, and the indirect effects on progress due to network effects and interrelationships between the Goals and targets. The findings suggest that these “network effects could be used to secure better outcomes on every Goal than would be possible if linkages between Goals did not exist at all.” The implication, the authors highlight, is that the optimal outcomes on the SDGs would be achieved through an unequal, targeted allocation of efforts toward specific Goals and targets.

Several of the paper’s findings are presented via heatmaps and graphics, highlighting the relationships between the Goals. Of note, the discussion notes a “distinct asymmetry between Goals 1, 2 and 3 and the remaining Goals. Progress on Goals 4-16 generally promotes progress on Goals 1, 2 and 3, but there are far fewer links in the other direction.” Similar to other analyses conducted on the relationships between the SDGs as a network, the paper omits SDG 17, noting that the Goal “provides mechanisms that are intended to enable each of the more specific Goals 1-16.” A summary write-up of the paper on Science Daily is also available, here.

Additional issues of the SDG Knowledge Weekly can be found here.

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