As UN pushes radical Sustainable Development Goals, scientists are trying to make sense of them

EXCLUSIVE: Less than a year after the United Nations embraced the all-encompassing, socialist-oriented agenda known as the Sustainable Development Goals, scientists are just beginning to try to figure out what the new goals may entail, how they can even be measured, and where the high-flown objectives contradict or impede themselves.

The “indivisible” SDGs are supposed to guide policies in every country around the world. According to scientists working to unravel their practical implications, even starting to get a systematical handle on what is feasible and desirable, and what is counter-productive, in their content is unlikely to happen before the end of the year -- and then will likely need lots of additional adjustment.

Lack of concrete knowledge about what the SDGs, taken as a package, actually may require did not prevent the U.N. last week from urging member states, and an army of supportive non-government organizations, to “move from commitments to results” on the “transformative” goals while “ensuring that no one is left behind”-- a hurry-up declaration affirmed at a nine-day, U.N.-sponsored High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York City.

The first-ever annual High-Level Political Forum was intended to keep momentum behind  the 17 lofty -- and wafty -- SDGs, which range from “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

They come with 169 equally expansive “targets” for achievement by 2030.

Among them, to name but one: ensuring that “all men and women…have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.”

The targets themselves are so broad that the U.N. is also working on a drastic re-working of global statistics to measure progress across the agenda, honing 230 statistical indicators, including some that haven’t really been invented yet.

(Example: “Percentage of 15-year-old students enrolled in secondary school demonstrating at least a fixed level of knowledge across a selection of topics in environmental science and geoscience.”)

The SDGs and their dense asteroid belt of  attendant targets and indicators are vastly impressive -- on paper -- and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed them a year ago as “a defining moment in human history.”

Nonetheless, they are also uncoordinated, lack practical methods for achievement, and are unrealistically ambitious -- all of which was clearly pointed out before their adoption in September 2015 by two prestigious international science councils based in Geneva.

That analysis was ignored, according to coordinator of the science council analysis, in large measure because governments didn’t want to revamp their political deals to make the targets more efficient, achievable or event coherent.

“The U.N. is talking about the SDGs as an indivisible whole,” observed Mans Nillson, research director and deputy director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, and one of the authors of the critical science council report. “We are not supposed to be picking and choosing among them. But reality is divisible.”

Nillson, who is still a strong supporter of the goals, subsequently began working on a practical method to help steer countries through an analysis of what might make sense in attempting to implement the SDGs and what didn’t -- something that the U.N., in forging its essentially political goals, didn’t do.

With three co-authors, in June 2016 he  published  the “draft framework  for understanding SDG interactions” under the auspices of the prestigious International Council for Science (ICSU)—which also issued the earlier SDG critical analysis-- and unveiled it again at a side-event the High-Level Political Forum.

He told Fox News that “we have had very positive comments, mostly in the academic world,” and added that “most see it as, finally, a kind of constructive way to start making sense of this big, big agenda.”

Nillson said the framework was also tested prior to publication by “policy-makers in Sweden,” who were likewise “very positive.”

Simply put, the framework uses a simple point-scale system, ranging from plus-3 to minus-3, to weigh the reality of positive and negative “interactions” between the SDGs in the real world. Many of them appear to be no more than codified common sense -- except for the “indivisible” edict fencing off the goals as a whole.

As one “constraining” example on the scale, for example, Nillson points out that “pursuing policies to boost consumption in order to promote economic growth” in fulfilling one SDG goal “may counter-act the objectives to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions” in another.

On the other, reinforcing, side, “providing access to electricity” under one goal “reinforces water-pumping and irrigation systems” under a goal to support agriculture, a situation that would rate a plus-2 on the scale.

Mostly, what the framework underlines is the need to analyze the goals on “a case-by-case basis” -- which requires field-testing the analytic framework itself in real-world circumstances, an effort that has barely begun.


As part of that effort, ICSU has mobilized a research team, based at a number of geographical centers, to examine one SDG each in the context of four different areas of importance:  energy, health, agriculture and oceans.

Each area, Nillson told Fox News last month, will require “four to six months of research time.”

The director of the health segment, Dr. Anthony Capon of the United Nations University’s Malaysia-based International Institute for Global Health, told Fox News he considers the field experiment “very ambitious, and rightly so,” even though work was barely beginning.

As one example, he cited the challenge to health of the growing resistance of microbes to antibiotics, which pits health goals against agricultural practices. There, he said, “we need medical people coupled with veterinary scientists in the food system,” antibiotic use is “not as well regulated,” to examine “potential tradeoffs.”

Capon declined to speculate on where the research might lead, but said that results would be “reported through the ICSU process.”

The same caution about outcomes was expressed by Frederique Seyler, an environmental expert and research director at France’s Institute for Research on Development, who is, among other things, looking at the “trade-offs” between Amazon deforestation -- impelled by agriculture development and a new emergence of malaria in the region.

“We are trying to make observations concerning malaria in relation to land use,” she told Fox News. “It’s necessary to inform politicians of this potential trade-off, and also to give warnings of potential feedbacks that are not evident.”

“What is important to point out” in the field test she is conducting, Seyler said, “is where there is a lack of knowledge”

In a 153-page, jargon-laden, annual Global Sustainable Development Report -- released to fuel policy discussion during the High-Level Political Forum hoopla -- the U.N. refers to the challenge of the knowledge gap as “strengthening the science-policy interface,” and acknowledges that “it will be critical to systematically collect further scientific evidence how existing development strategies do indeed reach” what the authors call “the furthest behind.”

But mostly, in examining the issue, it substitutes quantity for quality.

While underlining that the document used inputs from “245 scientists and experts based in 27 countries,” as well as 20 agencies, departments and programs of the U.N. system,” , not to mention “62 policy briefs,” the U.N. report noted blandly that its scientific contributors “tended to highlight policies and actions that are far beyond their own disciplinary expertise.”

This, the report said, “illustrates the relevance of integrated systems views for thinking of technology in the context of the context of the 2030 Agenda.”

The report also enthused that as its contributor scientists looked toward the 2030 end-point of the much-touted SDGs, they identified “crucial emerging technologies for the SDGs, which fall into the bio-tech, digital-tech, nano-tech, neuro-tech and green-tech categories.”

However, the document added, “little information appears to exist on the level of performance and deployment of these technologies that would need to be achieved by 2030.”

The U.N. prescription:  “further collaboration on SDG scenarios and roadmaps that explicitly incorporate technology will be essential.”


In other words, even as the U.N. report warned that its SDG agenda “will require a consideration of how social objectives are balanced with other objectives, such as short-term economic efficiency,” it seemed that the most foreseeable result of the vast but vague undertaking was a flood of additional U.N. paperwork on the SDGs.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter:  @GeorgeRussell  or on Russell