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Walking the Talk
Leading Academics Urge UN to Extend, Reframe SDGs

10 distinguished climate researchers have called on the UN to give its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development a much-needed refresh — by extending the timeline to 2050 and providing greater clarity around specific goals, among other recommendations.

A group of leading academics is calling for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be extended past their 2030 target date and updated — with more input from communities affected by the goals and consideration for the potential impacts of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), among other recommendations.

State of the SDGs

Halfway to the original, targeted completion date of 2030, many of the 17 SDGs are off track or progressing too slowly — due to, among other things, the slowing of the global economy by COVID and international conflicts. In the run-up to the UN’s Summit of the Future in New York in September, the authors are recommending the goals be extended to 2050 and updated with greater clarity around specific goals — such as those pertaining to climate and "planetary health" — and reworking individual targets for each goal.

Enacted in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals cover global challenges including hunger, poverty, health, climate action, education, gender equality, peace and biodiversity — with each goal comprised of specific targets.

Some goals and regions have progressed faster than others, but most of the world is lagging behind — particularly on climate and biodiversity targets — and many targets are too vague and difficult to measure. Another key challenge is to prevent some countries from progressing at the expense of others — since, as the authors point out, there are insufficient finance mechanisms in place to enable low- and middle-income countries to achieve the SDGs.

"Achieving the social and economic goals can't be done at the expense of planet," says Francesco Fuso-Nerini — director of the Climate Action Center at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, honorary researcher at the University of Oxford, and lead author of the paper. "What keeps getting left behind are the climate and biodiversity goals; so, the base layer for achieving the SDGs is a healthy planet that can support the achievement of all social and economic goals."

Fuso-Nerini co-authored the call to action — published in Nature — with Mariana Mazzucato, University College London; Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Earth Commission; Harro van Asselt, University of Cambridge; Jim W. Hall, University of Oxford; Stelvia Matos, University of Surrey; Åsa Persson, Stockholm Environmental Institute; Benjamin Sovacool, Boston University; Ricardo Vinuesa, KTH Royal Institute of Technology; and Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University.

The authors point out that action towards the SDGs has often been siloed and strategies unaligned. For example, as well as increasing spending on health, many COVID-19 recovery packages poured money into shoring up carbon-intensive industries rather than boosting renewables. And only a handful of countries’ climate commitments under the Paris Agreement take into account broader SDG outcomes — including impacts on incomes, poverty, jobs, inequality, health and education.

Time for a refresh

The authors highlight an urgent need for updated pathways and milestones toward reaching all SDGs — including integrating net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, as well as strengthening global governance of the transition through existing frameworks agreed upon by the members of the UN — and that adapting the goals to be relevant to 2050 will require more inclusive consultations with scientists, indigenous populations, marginalized communities and the private sector.

They also point to other critical developments — such as the rise of AI — that have been introduced since the SDGs were first agreed in 2015. One study finds that AI could benefit 134 targets across all the goals — such as making better weather forecasts or improving medical diagnoses — but that it could also inhibit 59 targets by fueling climate change, energy use and the spread of disinformation.

Among steps toward strengthening the goals, they recommend reframing them as missions with clear targets and reforming global finance architecture to enable more public investment in reaching the goals.

In the face of the lack of coordinated, significant, strategic progress toward the Goals, the authors say, “Some people have argued that the world should take stock and focus on fewer sustainability goals and targets. We disagree. Because all of these global crises are interlinked, only a holistic and global approach to solving them will work. The SDGs should remain at the center of global policy agendas.”

Summit of the Future

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has invited representatives of world leaders to gather in New York City this September for a meeting called the Summit of the Future, the goal of which is to agree on an updated draft of a document called the Pact for the Future — a proposal to identify 10–20 SDG-like indicators of economic growth, wellbeing and sustainability. The authors point out that few of the SDGs have the priority, status and attention in national policymaking that SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) does. Guterres wants to change this and get policymakers to focus not just on economic indicators such as GDP, but on a dashboard of indicators that he is calling Beyond GDP.

“We call on member states of the United Nations, in the run-up to the UN Summit of the Future in September, to adapt and extend the SDG framework to 2050,” the authors say. “This will entail setting interim targets for 2030 and 2040 and final targets for 2050 that align with science and maintain high, yet achievable, national and global ambitions.”

They urge the UN General Assembly to review and adopt new guidelines by 2026; and that all nations should prepare revised, comprehensive and forward-looking voluntary national reviews of SDG strategies, along with quantifiable interim targets no later than 2027.

First things first

Among recommendations for revised global actions and timelines for all of the SDGs and the targets within them, the authors highlight several critical priorities:

  • Scientists must set out pathways for updating SDG targets and milestones to return Earth to a safe operating zone within two decades.

  • Global greenhouse gas emissions must reach net zero by 2040–50.

  • Global biodiversity loss must be halted in the next decade, and investments made to protect and regenerate intact and managed ecosystems.

  • Patterns of resource extraction and use, covering everything from rare-earth metals to construction materials and nutrients, must shift towards circular models.

  • All economic transactions must account for the true cost of planetary damage.