The COVID-19 pandemic and overlapping global crises, including geopolitical conflict and climate change, have made achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) more challenging. The scientific community increasingly recognizes the need to accelerate the adoption of evidence-based, scientifically-sound policies and actions to operationalize sustainable development. Achieving the SDGs will require broad engagement and commitment from governments, the private sector, funders, and civil society (ISC, 2020); however, stakeholders lack a shared understanding of how the 17 SDGs can be operationalized (Sachs et al., 2019). Moreover, despite the high degree of interest in the types of activities included in the SDGs, recognition of the SDGs is low in the United States (Morning Consult and United Nations Foundation, 2021).
The National Academies Committee on Operationalizing Sustainable Development was charged with identifying key research priorities and possible actionable steps to operationalize sustainable development at the global and local levels. The committee convened two virtual public workshops to gather information on positive case studies across eight interrelated themes (summarized below), which served as the primary source of evidence for its work. The committee also drew on global case studies and papers, previous National Academies activities such as the Nobel Prize Summit 2021, a bounded literature review, and members’ expertise. Although the scope of the challenges and opportunities are global with many research investigations and actions needed, the committee developed the following research priorities and possible
actionable steps for consideration by U.S. stakeholders, informed mostly by the workshops:
- Education and Capacity Building (Chapter 2): Education is critical to achieving the SDGs, and educational institutions at all levels are powerfully positioned to operationalize sustainable development across society. Universities could undertake initiatives to assist faculty and students to develop Voluntary University Reviews to ensure that students regardless of major are exposed to the challenges and opportunities in sustainable development, and to partner with local and national government and nonprofit organizations to advance the SDGs. Cities and school districts could initiate and support locally relevant K-12 learning on the SDGs, and governments and education leaders could engage the public to raise awareness of the SDGs.
- Localization of the SDGs and Indigenous Knowledge Networks (Chapter 3): The SDGs embrace global aspirations, but they must be rooted in local buy-in and implementation. Urban and community leaders and practitioners as well as philanthropic organizations could learn from case studies and knowledge networks, including how others effectively incorporate indigenous knowledge to advance sustainability. The U.S. government could commit to creating a Voluntary National Review (VNR) by encouraging more states and cities to conduct Voluntary Local Reviews and synthesize this already good work at the local level to scale to a VNR roll-up.
- Food Systems (Chapter 4): The food system encompasses a wide range of activities from input supply and the production of crops, livestock, fish, and other agricultural commodities to storage, transportation, processing, packaging, consumption, and waste disposal. The current food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of global water use. Although it produces an abundance of food (as well as food waste and ecological damage), approximately 2.4 billion people (or 30 percent of the global population) lacked access to adequate food in 2020, even before the current rise in global food prices and the disruption of the supply chain exacerbated the situation. Addressing these issues and operationalizing the SDGs will entail holistic reform of each link in the food system, taking into account environmental, scientific, economic, and social factors.
- Urbanization (Chapter 5): Local-scale sustainability transformations are important, and they are easier to achieve than systemic change across multiple dimensions of the SDGs at the city-regional scale. It is important to assess what kinds of big data are needed from cities to monitor SDG transitions along environmental, social, and economic considerations and to demonstrate the multiple benefits of sustainable urbanization.
- Decarbonization (Chapter 6): Decarbonization of energy systems is central to global decarbonization efforts and achievement of all SDGs. A fundamental energy-systems transformation would help to address health, climate, and other challenges facing humanity, and would especially benefit individuals without access to affordable and clean energy services. In addition to reducing net emissions across all sectors and transitioning to zero-carbon energy sources, both organic and inorganic carbon dioxide removal (CDR) will minimize global warming. Needed are massive scale-up, financial investment, and research that examine the fundamental science of ocean- and nature-based CDR; the shift toward zero-carbon sources of energy such as renewables and nuclear; efficiency improvement across the whole energy system especially in energy end use; and new behaviors and lifestyles including circularity and sufficiency.
- Science, Technology, and Innovation for the SDGs (Chapter 7): Partnerships across sectors and disciplines, including science, technology, and innovation (STI), offer hope for resurgent multilateralism and innovative approaches to advance the SDGs. Digital and other technological advances offer new possibilities across sectors and communities. Studies could examine the current status of achieving the SDGs and how STI can facilitate their achievement in the context of the economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and conflicts including the war in Ukraine.
- Science and Peace (Chapter 8): SDG 16 covers a lot of ground including the reduction of all forms of violence, equal access to justice for all, increased accountability and transparency, and the protection of fundamental freedoms. Conflict undermines achievement of all SDGs. There is a need to strengthen SDG data hubs, partnerships, and data for monitoring and enforcement related to the reduction of violence aspects with a focus on science and peace. Governments and nongovernmental organizations could create a new global social pact, as part of the effort to negotiate the initiative that follows the SDGs beyond 2030, to promote a global system for science to advance peace.
- Financing to Achieve the SDGs (Chapter 9): Despite the challenges, opportunities exist to realize tangible and intangible benefits from SDG-related investing. Place-based initiatives could help to attract private investment and unlock financing. Public, private, and other organizations could create more blended finance options given the growing demand for positive environmental, social, and governance investments.
Chapters 2–9 list all of the research priorities and possible actionable steps. Chapter 10 then compiles and organizes all of the committee’s research priorities and possible actionable steps that can help to operationalize sustainable development by stakeholder. The committee believes that these recommendations are ambitious but realistic and, taken together, can make a measurable difference in a sustainable future for all.
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