What is real sustainable development

What do sustainable development goals bring?

At the beginning of 2016, the UN replaced its Millennium Goals with 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These "Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs) are political objectives for sustainable development on an economic, social and ecological level. By 2030, all countries in the world are committed to goals that include food security, access to clean water, sustainable urban development, protection of marine and terrestrial ecosystems and sustainable consumption. However, these SDGs may not be suitable for preventing damage to the environment and protecting biodiversity. This is the conclusion reached by a team of authors led by Yiwen Zeng, whose study took place on Monday, June 29th. published in "Nature Sustainability" (see primary source).

The authors compared the performance of countries on indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals that have to do with the environment with other, independent benchmarks. They found that good performance on the indicators belonging to the SDGs correlated less with good performance on environmentally-related independent scores and more with good performance on socio-economic scores. They come to the conclusion that the SDGs measure socio-economic aspects rather than the environmental aspect. They therefore fear that the SDGs could be misused as a distraction or justification if countries with good performance in the SDG-relevant factors hide the fact that they are nonetheless harmful to the environment.

The authors examined the performance of several nations and determined how they perform on indicators that have to do with the environment and compared them with 11 criteria that they describe as recognized and independent. The comparison showed that countries that performed well on the SDG indicators show strengths in socio-economic development for the other criteria, but not particularly good values ​​in relation to environmental criteria.

From this result, the researchers conclude that the UN's sustainability goals measure socio-economic aspects rather than environmental aspects. SDGs could therefore be misused as a distraction or justification to hide the fact that nations with good SDG values ​​still act in an environmentally harmful way.

The scientists suggest revising the sustainable development goals. More data is needed in order to be able to better assess which factors really ensure more environmental protection. On this basis, the SDGs could be revised in such a way that they better guarantee their intended purpose in terms of protecting biodiversity and the environment.




  • Prof. Dr. Helmut Haberl, Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Ecology, Department for Economic and Social Sciences, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), Vienna, Austria

  • Privatdozent Dr. Jens Jetzkowitz, research assistant in the Department of Museums and Society, Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Research (MfN), Berlin

  • Dr. Robert Lepenies, Scientist, Environment and Society, Department of Environmental Policy, Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research GmbH (UFZ), Leipzig and Member of the Global Young Academy (GYA)


Prof. Dr. Helmut Haberl

Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Ecology, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), Vienna, Austria

“Measuring progress towards sustainable development is a difficult and complex challenge. This short article compares the internationally agreed SDG indicators with other indicators and finds a significant discrepancy. The authors focus above all on the undoubtedly important question of the conservation of biodiversity and fear that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a smoke grenade ('smokescreen') that should cover up the ongoing destruction of nature. "

“I consider the results to be relevant because the definition of the SDG indicators is based on a consensus process between science and practice systems - politics, administration and others - which is time-consuming and slow. There is always the danger that crucial aspects will be ignored because they run counter to powerful interests. The study indicates that this also applies to the SDG indicators. This seems to me to be a relevant general input in the discussion for the implementation of the SDGs. "

“The results didn't really surprise me. It has long been known in indicator research that the selection of indicators in an indicator system has a strong, often decisive influence on its overall message - which is confirmed here. "

“The approach of making simplified, highly aggregated statements across many countries and indicators seems problematic to me. Different levels - socio-economic development, condition or pressure on biodiversity - are related across the board, which I do not find convincingly resolved. Personally, I would find a more specific, more limited analysis more interesting, which would focus more on the mechanisms of action of biodiversity loss and the informative value of individual indicators. However, this would require considerably more complex methods. "

“The importance of the SDGs is that they have been officially recognized at the highest political level and thus trigger a need for action deep down in politics and administration. There is undoubtedly a trade-off between political acceptance - the tendency for criteria to be watered down in a direction that states believe they can meet - and sharpness of analysis. The present study shows this to some extent. It is important to improve the SDG indicators, at this point I agree with the authors. But this study provides very little specific guidance for this. This would require specific analyzes of indicators that can map specific aspects of the state of or the pressure on biodiversity. This would enable better indicators to be derived, the implementation of which would improve the overall indicator system. "

Privatdozent Dr. Jens Jetzkowitz

Research Associate in the Department of Museums and Society, Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Research (MfN), Berlin

“The study is an important contribution that gives substance to a fear that has been harbored for some time by biodiversity and sustainability researchers: that in international and national politics, goals for sustainable development (SDGs) are striven for in a highly selective manner. The SDGs can only work if the conservation of the biosphere is given priority as the basis for all socio-economic goals in politics. "

“The research team presented a creative and relevant analysis to test this concern. The fact that effective species monitoring can contribute to a more reliable analysis of changes in biodiversity has long been suggested to political decision-makers from biodiversity research - unfortunately without the desired success. The fact that effective measures to protect the biosphere are not taken globally and regionally (in Europe) is not due to a lack of data. Even measures for this are in the IPBES Global Assessment (IPBES - World Biodiversity Council; editor's note) and through the special report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; editor's note) has been evaluated for the 1.5 degree target; but these are obviously ignored by politics. "

Dr. Robert Lepenies

Scientist, Environment and Society, Department of Environmental Policy, Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research GmbH (UFZ), Leipzig and Member of the Global Young Academy (GYA)

"The relevance of the study is given because the relevance of the topic is high."

"In July 2020 the HLPF, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development of the United Nations (UN) will meet for the first time in a purely virtual manner. It is the central organ of the UN for sustainable development, in which the UN member states exchange information on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. "

“This year, too, it will probably take place largely unnoticed by the public. It is astonishing that this forum - as well as other important aspects of the political embedding of the SDGs - is not mentioned in the article. The article refers exclusively to SDG indicators that have been discussed in a tough negotiation process by the international statistical community for five years - their political significance and effectiveness, however, are still unclear. The article does not sufficiently reflect which actors actually assign greater importance to these SDG indicators. "

“There is hope for a more comprehensive implementation of the SDGs, as this year's HLPF is much more influenced by the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) [1], which is also not mentioned in the article, in which - similar to other scientific assessments, for example the IPCC - and IPBES reports - a broad scientific community shows which sustainability transformations are necessary in various fields in order to achieve the SDGs. The political and scientific focus is more on the sustainability goals and targets that were politically agreed in 2015 and less on the global indicator system, which has to be considered separately. "

“The study comes at a good time, even if it fails to mention important political processes and actors that are ultimately decisive for the implementation of the SDGs. This lack of a governance perspective can also be seen in the authors' suggestion that better indicators and monitoring systems are needed first and foremost in order to meet the global challenges after 2030. "

“The key message of the study, that good performance on SDG indicators correlates with good performance on socio-economic 'scores', is not very surprising if one takes a closer look at the construction of SDG indicators. In their design, these often use parameters that relate to the gross domestic product and economic key figures and which are therefore already pre-determined in their construction by a growth-oriented, economic perspective. In its systematic evaluation of the SDG indicators, however, the study makes a good contribution to depicting the subordinate importance of environmental and nature conservation goals in international SDG policy and statistics, which, however, are explained in more detail elsewhere [2] [3]. "

“Of course, it is difficult to establish clear causal relationships between the SDGs and their social, political and environmental effects - at the same time, similar attempts are being made in environmental research [4] [5]. In any case, the SDGs are the only globally visible, integrated sustainability agenda that we have. "

“The most important thing is to what extent the SDGs are implemented nationally and regionally by the UN member states. In Germany, this is done through the also little-known German sustainability strategy [6], which is described in a scientific consultation process (the WPN2030) as timid, underambitious and politically invisible [7]. "

“At the same time, there are positive developments, especially in the development of global monitoring of SDG indicators, from which we also benefit in environmental research, and which provide a better, regionally resolved insight into sustainability challenges worldwide. Unlike the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals, predecessor of the SDGs; editor's note) the involvement of local political actors is now much greater than it used to be. "

“Here you have to separate the SDGs - that is, the intergovernmental sustainability goals of 2015 - and the indicator framework - which is being discussed by the international statistical community. The present article by Zeng et al. mixes these processes and therefore cannot make adequate policy recommendations. Adjusting the SDG indicators, which have not yet been finalized globally, would probably not make sense at this point - also because the current debate is already further here. The Global Sustainable Development Report stands for a perspective that - in the spirit of the authors - calls for the implementation of the SDGs for more environmental, climate and biodiversity protection, highlights links between the goals and points to synergies and trade-offs. "

“The authors, mainly experts in the field of biodiversity and nature conservation research, refer to the results of the global IPBES report (2019). Indeed, there should be more discussion of how the results of this report can be incorporated into the debate on implementation of the SDGs, and what role politics, science and the media can play in this. "

Information on possible conflicts of interest

Prof. Dr. Helmut Haberl: "No Conflict of Interest, I don't know the authors."

Privatdozent Dr. Jens Jetzkowitz: "I have no conflict of interest."

All other: No information received.

Primary source

Zeng Y et al. (2020): Environmental destruction not avoided with the Sustainable Development Goals. Nature Sustainability. DOI: 10.1038 / s41893-020-0555-0.

References cited by the experts

[1] Website: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform.

[2] Fukuda-Parr S et al. (2019): Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring the SDG's: Introduction to Special Issue. Global policy; 10 S1: 5-15. DOI: 10.1111 / 1758-5899.12604.

[3] Lepenies P et al. (2017): Global Policy Goals. Inventory and outlook of the post-2015 process. P.1-10.

[4] Website: PEER - Partnership for European Environmental Research.

[5] Website: Global Goals - Research for Sustainability.

[6] The Federal Government: The German Sustainability Strategy.

[7] Science Platform Sustainability 2030: Please turn over! Science for sustainable development in Germany. A critical reflection of the Science Platform Sustainability 2030 on the occasion of the update of the German Sustainability Strategy.

Further sources of research

Science Media Center (2019): Global Assessment of the World Biodiversity Council. Research in Context. Status: 05/06/2019.