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Reactions to research warning of low impact of Sustainable Development Goals on public policy

The UN-driven Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have influenced governments' narratives around sustainability, but have not led to substantial changes in legislative action or resource allocation, according to an analysis published in the journal Nature Sustainability that has analysed more than 3,000 studies.

20/06/2022 - 17:00 CEST
Expert reactions

Beatriz González - ODS - EN

Beatriz González López-Valcárcel

Professor of Quantitative Methods in Economics at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

Science Media Centre Spain

This is an important article, the result of a collaborative effort of dozens of people who in a larger project have reviewed more than 3,000 articles and documents. The detailed results of the project (SDG Impact Assessment) will be published this year.

Through a meta-analysis, the authors explore the actual impact of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals between 2015 and 2021. The article shows that the transformative impact has been low, rather discursive, has barely been translated into regulatory and institutional changes, and has been used by some governments to legitimise their own previous policies.

However, they also find grounds for optimism. For example, the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development [the UN platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development] is working to learn from the good practices of other governments.

The author has not responded to our request to declare conflicts of interest

Alicia Pérez-Porro - ODS

Alicia Pérez-Porro

Scientific coordinator of CREAF

Science Media Centre Spain

This study by Biermann et al. (2022) analyses the public policy impact that the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have had so far. They conclude that, despite the ambition of the 2030 Agenda in which they are framed, their impact on international, national and local policies has so far been limited since their implementation in 2015. However, the SDGs have provided a narrative framework for other sustainable development actors, such as civil society and the private sector, which in turn allows them to assess and pressure governments to implement or accelerate implementation.

Disregarding the lack of ambition of the SDGs as a possible limitation to their impact on public policy, it is important to note that the SDGs are not legally binding and therefore their interpretation may vary depending on the actors and their own interests. This is not new in the international sphere, for example, the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), the predecessor of the SDGs, were not legally binding either. And proposals to strengthen the role of the UN body in charge of monitoring the SDGs, the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), are not supported by all countries.

Although the advancement of the SDGs is closely linked to the current international governance system, it is important to mention the role of sub-national, local and regional governments in advancing them. This is especially relevant in those countries where state policy has an anecdotal interest in advancing the SDGs. There are few studies on this topic, as there are on the progress and impact of the SDGs in African countries.

We will have to wait until 2030 to be able to assess the final and real impact of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, but studies such as this one are very necessary to detect those areas in which to focus and work to ensure the partial or total success of the SDGs and their impact on policies for sustainable development without leaving anyone behind.

Alicia Pérez-Porro is a member of the Advisory Committee of SMC Spain.

Scientific evidence on the political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals
  • Research article
  • Peer reviewed
Nature Sustainability
Publication date

Frank Biermann et al.

Study types:
  • Research article
  • Peer reviewed
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