Monitoring a set of global goals is no easy task. Determining the minimum set of variables required for a change to be detected could help ease this task, argue centre researchers. Photo: A. Maslennikov/Azote

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Monitoring our way towards global sustainable development

How a minimum set of essential variables offer a more coordinated monitoring system to help progress towards global sustainable development

Story highlights

  • Paper proposes four criteria for determining Essential Variables for a SDG monitoring framework
  • Criteria (defining the system, system transformations, coordination, and indispensable) could help determine Essential Variables for monitoring the SDGs
  • Researchers highlight that a global research agenda around Essential SDG Variables would draw together diverse disciplines, models and monitoring efforts.needed to help progress to global sustainable development

Mobilizing a movement of any kind requires consolidation, but also understanding that context varies. The setting can greatly vary from community to community, city to city, country to country, and region to region.

The global movement of working towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is, in this sense, no different. Agenda 2030 even points out that each country will differ in circumstance, resources, and vision when it comes to sustainable development.

Despite variation in context, an important way to make sense of progress is through monitoring and evaluation. Agenda 2030, with 17 goals, 169 targets, 230 indicators of progress, and over 700 multi-lateral environment agreements, becomes overwhelming when trying to determine success in working towards the common goal of global sustainable development.

In developing more coordinated monitoring of progress towards the SDGs, centre researcher Belinda Reyers, and postdoctoral researcher Odirilwe Selomane, published a paper in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability earlier this year on the potential of SDG monitoring using a systems approach called Essential Variables (EVs).

EVs are the minimum set of variables required for a change to be detected. In other words, EVs are either a single or group of variables that critically track the system in question.

This paper reviews the potential for the EV approach to focus monitoring for the SDGs, and to create a coordinated system. We also identify the transdisciplinary research agenda that would be required to support such a monitoring system.

Belinda Reyers, lead author


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Essential variables

In explaining their significance Selomane believes EVs can help with two things: it can help monitoring systems provide more efficient observations, and capture important system dynamics such as the cross-scale feedbacks from our global food system. “These are often left out of monitoring frameworks,” Selomane says.

“One EV can potentially contribute to multiple indicators, and the same observation can link to more than one EV, thus potentially reducing the numbers of observations needed to deliver those indicators.” This helps to reduce the amount of monitoring required.

EVs were developed in the 1990s as means to coordinate global climate observations for the Global Climate Observing System, and have since been endorsed by of both research and policy sectors. For instance, they have been used for measuring progress in climate, biodiversity, social, as well as ocean monitoring programs. Reyers, Selomane, and colleagues believe that EVs can help focus the monitoring of the SDGs.

Suggested criteria for SDG progress

Previous programmes that have executed EVs in their monitoring programmes has helped to refine what is important when it comes to determining EVs. Learning from this, and considering the SDG context, the authors purpose four criteria for determining Essential Sustainable Development Goal Variables (ESDGVs):

Defining the system – a group of key features that predict what will happens over time and space.

System transformation – the variable in question supports the transformative nature of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. Can leverage points for action can be identified?

Coordination needed – synergies and trade-offs are captured between SDGs and policy arenas that need coordination.

Indispensable–this variable is necessary for SDG progress, and it services multiple functions.

The introduction of Essential Variables (EV) as a layer between primary observations and indicators can transform the shape of monitoring systems from (a) an ever-broadening pyramid to (b) a more streamlined form. Click on illustration to access scientific article

Streamline logic in SDG monitoring

In developing these criteria, Reyers notes that, “The rationale for developing EVs has been to focus and direct monitoring efforts, as well as make monitoring systems more internally consistent and free of critical gaps. In the case of the SDGs, an added incentive is to meet the original intent of ‘orchestrating’ the diversity of policy domains that are affecting and affected by the goals.”

In addition to streamlining research, developing a set of EVSDGs could also have real-world benefits for policymakers and natons working towards the SDGs. “This research agenda could help streamline logic in SDG monitoring. This could help reduce the ever-expanding set of observations, which are certain burden nation states in their SDG monitoring, and also increase the likelihood of uncoordinated monitoring by non-governmental agencies.”

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Related info

Reyers, B., Stafford-Smith, M., Erb, K.H., Scholes, R.J. and Selomane, O., 2017. Essential Variables help to focus Sustainable Development Goals monitoring. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 26, pp.97-105.

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Belinda Reyers is director of Guidance for resilience in the Anthropocene (GRAID), a Sida funded programme bridging resilience thinking and development practice. Her research aims to integrate knowledge of complex social-ecological systems, and their role in supporting resilient societies, into policy and practice.

Odirilwe Selomane is a postdoctoral researcher for the GRAID programme. He is interested in understanding how complex systems dynamics can be reflected in the monitoring of progress towards sustainable development.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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