The People's Climate March (PCM) in Nelbourne, 21 September 2014. A policy paper argues that the new Sustainable Development Goals must be strengthened by better inclusion of among others autonomous citizens and civil society. Photo: Takver/Flickr

Sustainable Development Goals - SDGs

Global sustainability is everyone's business

Four ways to boost the effectiveness and implementation of the SDGs

Story highlights

  • Paper looks at ways to strengthen the universal relevance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • SDGs need to target not only governments, but other agents of chang such as businesses, cities, citizens and civil society
  • Authors suggest four connected perspectives that appeal to both governments and other agents of change

To any scholar of international relations, the role of intergovernmental organisations is a difficult one. Are they facilitating or hampering development? When it comes to environmental governance, most seem to lean towards the latter. For instance, the 2012 Rio+20 Conference became another example of negotiations fizzling into very little beyond vague country-specific commitments.

The decision to craft a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is widely regarded as the most tangible outcome of the conference.

From an optimist’s view, the SDGs have the potential to function as a guiding star for galvanizing action, be it on a local, national or international level. However, the final goals and targets that will be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 also risk falling short of expectations because of what researchers call "cockpit-ism": the illusion that top-down steering by governments and intergovernmental organisations alone can address global problems.

Boundaries, equity, citizens and businesses
In a policy paper recently published in Sustainability, a team of international high-level researchers including centre executive director Johan Rockström has looked at ways to strengthen the universal relevance of the SDGs.

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They argue that the SDGs need to target not only governments, but other agents of change such as businesses, cities, citizens and civil society. That means reframing sustainable development.

"SDGs that reflect diverse perspectives on sustainable development can mobilise a broader coalition of actors and thereby enhance the universal relevance of the SDGs"

Johan Rockström, co-author

Together with his colleagues, which include Maarten Hajer from the Netherlands Environmental Agency, Måns Nilsson from the Stockholm Environment Institute and Kate Raworth from Oxford University, Rockström suggests four connected perspectives that appeal to both governments and other agents of change:

  • Planetary boundaries
  •  Safe and Just Operating Space
  • Energetic Society
  • Green competition

The planetary boundaries concept appeals to an overarching concern about the state of the global environment, which can help mobilise governments to take action and formulate policy strategies. For instance, Sweden and Switzerland are already using the concept as guiding principles in their national environmental policies. Germany is considering it too.

The second perspective, "Safe and Just Operating Space", adds social concerns to planetary boundaries.

"We are currently operating outside both sets of boundaries, facing both human deprivation and environmental degradation. A more safe and just operating space will demand both greater resource efficiency and equity in its global distribution," says co-author Kate Raworth.

The third perspective is called the "energetic society". It highlights the fact that achieving global sustainability involves social action in diverse contexts. This includes action by autonomous citizens, civil society initiatives, self-organised farmers, cities and innovative companies. They provide public services ranging from the creation of more green areas to the provision of knowledge and information.

"We have long moved out of the era of governance through governments. The SDG preparatory documents still mainly address governments – they need to do significantly better in approaching citizens, civil society, cities and businesses," says Johan Rockström.

The fourth and final perspective touches on aspects of the "energetic society" by urging the SDGs to better connect to "the logic of the business and finance community" and mobilise and engage them as agents of change.

"Business plays a key role in sustainable development and needs to be held more directly accountable. Targets on sustainable production and resource efficiency that directly address businesses will not only support front runners in developing sustainable business models but also put pressure on the laggards to change," Rockström argues.

Time to inspire and challenge
Overall, Rockström and his co-authors argue that the SDGs need to "inspire and challenge multiple agents of change".

That means paying more attention to other forces beyond national governments.

"Recognising the constraints of cockpit-ism, we need to consciously target the SDGs to align with other agents of change. If we succeed with that, sustainable development has more potential than ever to become an influential and transformative norm in the 21st century," Rockström and his colleagues conclude.

Published: 2015-02-12



Maarten Hajer, Måns Nilsson, Kate Raworth, Peter Bakker, Frans Berkhout, Yvo de Boer, Johan Rockström, Kathrin Ludwig and Marcel Kok (2015) Beyond Cockpit-ism: Four Insights to Enhance the Transformative Potential of the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability 2015, 7, 1651-1660; doi:10.3390/su7021651

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