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Rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals from failing

18 September 2023
One World | Artist impression depicting the interaction between SDGs. Drawing by Leoni von Ristok

Today, 18 September, the United Nations is holding a summit to review the state of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs’ impact is currently limited, experts wrote in Science last week. One of the authors is Prajal Pradhan from the University of Groningen, who aims to investigate what is needed to rescue the SDGs from failing. Five questions about his research plans.

 FSE Science Newsroom | Charlotte Vlek 

Why do the SDGs need to be rescued?

Many governments do not take the SDGs seriously. Not one country is on track to reach the SDGs by 2030. That’s because countries are currently cherry-picking: they choose to focus on the goals that fit with what they’re already doing. But if we keep consuming like we do in the western world, we will drag down all SDGs.’

You recently started a tenure track position at the University of Groningen. Your research will focus on the interaction between SDGs. In what way do they interact?

portrait of Prajal Pradhan
Prajal Pradhan

‘Unfortunately, there are trade-offs between the various goals. If we aim to solve hunger in low-income countries, one solution could be intensifying agriculture to produce more food. That might resolve hunger to some extent, but it will be worse for biodiversity and the resources that go into the production and transportation of food. Instead, we should go for a fair distribution of food, more climate friendly and agroecological production, eating less meat, and more plant-based diets.’

‘In our research, we aim to develop models for the interactions between SDGs. Such models can be used to inform governments about which SDGs to focus on in their specific situation. These will differ between high-income countries and low-income countries. I aim to work out examples of these models for the Netherlands as a high-income country and for Nepal, where I’m from, as a low-income country.’

You also plan to investigate what would happen if we do not reach the SDGs by 2030. And even whether we should be doing more?

If everyone would be living a western lifestyle, you would need three Earths to sustain us

‘Reaching the SDGs might not even mean that we are fully sustainable. We are currently using about 1.75 times the available resources on Earth. If everyone would be living a western lifestyle, you would need three Earths to sustain us. We want to find out whether the SDGs are ambitious enough to ensure long-term sustainability. And we want to raise more awareness by being explicit about what will happen if we do not reach the goals.’ 

There has been criticism of the SDGs. Why?

‘The SDGs are politically formulated goals. They are aspirations, but they are not always measurable, realistic, time-bound. And they are not legally binding. In our Science paper that was published last week, we highlight four reforms to improve SDGs. We propose to differentiate more between high-income and low-income countries, to adapt the SDGs more to changing situations, to make them legally binding as much as possible, and to found an institution to keep track of our progress on these SDGs.’

‘For instance, high-income countries might need to work more on the reduction of greenhouse gasses, while low-income countries need to focus more on sustainably reducing poverty. And we need to keep updating our goals. In 2015, the SDGs were concerned with people living on less than 1.25 US dollars a day. Right now, after covid and Ukraine, that amount should perhaps be higher because of rising prices.’

What future do you see for the SDGs?

What’s currently happening is not enough.

‘What’s currently happening is not enough. We have to push ourselves to reach as much as possible by 2030. Individuals should be doing things, but they need to have an enabling environment that needs to be created by policymakers. And they need to start addressing SDGs in a systemic way.’

‘Luckily, there is also a positive side: in the last seven years, a lot of SDG-tagging has been happening. People have been labeling their activities as related to specific SDGs, which is different from a phenomenon such as greenwashing! Tagging things such as SDGs helps to make them more mainstream and to create awareness, though this is only the first step towards sustainable transformation. The UN SDG Summit 2023 that is being held this week should help accelerate global efforts to successfully implement SDGs.’


  • Prajal Pradhan, A threefold approach to rescue the 2030 Agenda from failing. National Science Review, 2023. Doi: 10.1093/nsr/nwad015

  • Frank Biermann, Yixian Sun, Dan Banik, Marianne Beisheim, Michael J. Bloomfield, Aurelie Charles, Pamela Chasek, Thomas Hickmann, Prajal Pradhan, Carole-Anne Sénit. Four governance reforms to strengthen the SDGs. Science, 2023 Doi: 10.1126/science.adj5434

Prajal Pradhan has recently started a tenure track position at the University of Groningen (UG), at Integrated Research on Energy, Environment and Society (IREES). He previously worked at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. His research project at the UG is financed by an ERC HORIZON Starting Grant.

Last modified:18 September 2023 10.16 a.m.
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