The Post-2015 Goals: Environmental Sustainability, Science and Development

By Bora Ristic, Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP student


Seedling This week, the next round of UN negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are under way in New York. The SDGs aim to coordinate and promote development across the world in critical areas, including health, education, governance, and environment amongst others. Imperial College PhDs (myself included) recently exchanged ideas with David Hallam from the Department for International Development about his current work on the SDGs to be agreed later this year. The talk centred on how this ambitious global development effort could be successful and, very broadly, what role science and the environmental research being conducted at Imperial can play.

Too many targets?

The UK holds the position that there are too many goals and too many targets currently under discussion. The 17 goals and 169 associated targets are not easily memorable to put it mildly. David argued that development agencies cannot do all at once, and will inevitably prioritise some goals and targets over others. Such prioritizing can reduce the impact of the SDGs as the easier options may be chosen over the harder ones.

On the other hand, a set of easily communicable goals and targets could mean oversimplification – once again lowering their effectiveness. These goals, after all, reflect what every UN member sees as the ends any society should pursue. Clearly a delicate balance must be struck between a manageable list and the inclusion of many different concerns.

Science and the SDGs

Science plays an integral role in these policies. Science can determine baseline values, measure current performance, and determine policy effectiveness against these. It can help in identifying the particular barriers to achieving goals and also elucidate means for removing them, such as the knowledge and the innovations that can feed the world sustainably and provide it with low-carbon energy.

For science to do any of this however, there must be communication between development needs and the research conducted. DfID uses a tendering method for its outsourced research needs and this could be applied more broadly. It is still important to have fundamental research, but the relevance of research to needs could be improved if funding criteria target the SDGs.

Limits of Science

Limitations to the application of science to the development agenda also exist. Scientists are trained in assessing uncertainty in their measurements and predictions. However, uncertainties are often misunderstood by the general public and are unpalatable to decision makers who push for clear answers.

Uncertainty is not the only limit to what science can deliver for development. Science often is simply trumped by political considerations in policy making. For example, the UNFCCC target of keeping global warming under 2°C was not determined by science, but by negotiations taking science into account. This is related to the question of weighting the interests of the disadvantaged duly and brings us to the main challenge posed for the application of science to development.

Science and Values

The SDGs, and development in general, deal with fundamental questions of value. What is development about? Do we want wealthy people? Healthy people? Educated in which way? Development is always driven by a sense of fairness or dignity or other values. We need environmentally friendly economies because people are suffering and we should help those in need (or at least not harm them). More ambitiously, we may consider the interests of future generations or the environment itself as imposing duties on us. So, how can science, with its objectivity, help us in this normative terrain?

While the interplay between science and values is hotly contested, one philosopher of science, Otto Neurath, saw science as a “a social practice – a discursive formation with emancipatory potential.” Science is influenced by social interests and projects but its choice of subject for investigation can deliver beneficial outcomes to human or non-human well-being. Such a conception of science as a sort of discourse ‘format’ could be applied to the development of the SDGs. With it, we would limit ourselves to the consideration of measurable well-being as targets for goals. This may enable easier communication between diverse perspectives, and may lead policy to deliver tangible results more readily.

Achieving the SDGs

There was also substantial discussion on practical steps for achieving the goals and targets. As with research funding, the work of development agencies and their staff could be assessed on the basis of the SDGs.

In terms of the negotiating process, a promising approach that is being adopted in the climate negotiations is one which calls for countries to report their nation’s intended contributions in advance of substantive negotiations. Coordinating bodies can then calculate the total individual measures in advance and determine if together they would meet the targets. Gaps can then be identified and parties called upon to address them. Secondly, instead of countries arguing they will not take ambitious measures until other parties do so, such an advance announcement creates competition between parties for the best measures.

As with any international effort, the SDG process suffers from the lack of a higher authority to ensure ambition and compliance. The anarchic setting of international agreements means parties can only deal in the currencies of goodwill and reputation. Preview and review processes, coupled with a scientific mind-set such as we have discussed above, could help to develop and achieve ambitious but feasible goals in such a setting.

We are extremely grateful to David for his visit and the fruitful conversation he made possible.

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