Guido Schmidt-Traub works on the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change. He is Executive Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and member of the Future Earth Governing Council. Previously he was CEO of Paris-based CDC Climate Asset Management, Partner at South Pole Carbon Asset Management in Zurich, and climate change advisor to the Africa Progress Panel. He led the UNDP Millennium Development Goal Support Team and was Associate Director of the UN Millennium Project in New York.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all countries on September 25, 2015. How will they make a difference to the world?

The 17 SDGs have been adopted by all countries to guide international cooperation and national policies for sustainable development through to 2030. The goals can play several critical roles. First, they provide a short-hand description of sustainable development that can be taught in every school and every university. The goals explain scientific concepts, such as ecosystem services and biodiversity, and they promote integrated thinking across the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.  Second, they distill a shared global ethics. Sustainable development is also a moral challenge, and the goals commit every country to end extreme poverty, promote social inclusion, and to ensure that human activities do not endanger or destroy essential life-supporting environmental systems. Third, the goals map out time-bound quantitative objectives that will mobilize governments, civil society, science, and business, including entire epistemic communities, around the question of how the goals can be achieved in every country. In this way, they will also serve as an accountability framework at local, national, regional, and global levels.

We can think of today’s world as an orchestra without a conductor. Everyone plays an instrument, but there is little coordination and no harmony. The SDGs can become a common song sheet for this orchestra. If everyone uses the same song sheet then the orchestra can become more harmonious without the need for a director.


How can yet another network actually help move the SDGs from paper to practice?

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012 to mobilize expertise from science, business, civil society, and government to accelerate practical problem solving for sustainable development. We are governed by a unique Leadership Council that brings together expertise across the full spectrum of sustainable development—from human rights to health, education, climate science, or agronomy. The group includes practitioners who push the SDSN to work on some of the most important practical challenges. Moving forward, we have four key priorities.

First, support the SDG agenda and make it operational. As two examples, we are supporting the development of a monitoring and indicator framework for the SDGs, and we are assessing the investment needs for the SDGs and how they could be financed. Second, the SDSN has 12 thematic groups that study how countries can transition towards sustainable development and identify solution initiatives. For example, the Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project mobilizes leading research institutes across 16 of the largest greenhouse gas emitters to develop long-term national pathways for deep decarbonization. A similar project has recently been launched by our agriculture group.

Third, we would like to support universities and other knowledge institutions in working with their governments to support the achievement of the SDGs. To this end, we have launched over 20 national and regional SDSNs that work on the specific challenges of their countries and regions. Finally, achieving the SDGs will require better and more integrated education. To this end, the SDSN has launched SDSNedu, which offers free online courses and seeks to build an online university for sustainable development.


Do we have enough knowledge to achieve the SDGs, or are there still missing gaps out there?

In recent years global environmental change research has made tremendous progress, and we now have a more robust understanding of the major global life-support systems. Yet, several important gaps remain. For example, our understanding of marine life and the effects of ocean acidification remain unsatisfactory, and a lot of systems information requires better downscaling to guide policymaking and improve medium- to long-term projections of how systems might evolve. I see a particularly important challenge in strengthening our understanding of how major earth systems interact and to overcome the artificial systems boundaries that guide many scientific methodologies and analyses. The energy–water nexus is an important example of such integrated analysis.

The newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals were promoted in Pakistan in February 2016.

To this end the SDSN, working with IIASA, the Stockholm Resilience Center, and dozens of leading research and modeling groups are launching a new initiative: The World in 2050. Over the coming years, this project aims to develop globally integrated pathways for sustainable development by mid-century. These pathways will include the SDGs as midway points to 2050 and cover the major dimensions of sustainable development, including economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. The project will also develop regional pathways to ensure that global pathways yield desirable and feasible regional pathways. We are still at the very beginning of this ambitious project but hope to be able to make a major contribution to our understanding of how the world can transition to sustainable development.

In my view, one of the most important challenges for science is to support policymakers in understanding and undertaking the major transformations towards sustainable development at national and regional levels. These include the deep decarbonization of energy systems, the transformation of food systems to ensure healthy diets and environmental sustainability, managing urbanization in diverse countries, sustainable forest management, a shift towards sustainable consumption and production patterns, and completing the demographic transition in high-fertility countries. Each of these transformations requires a deep understanding of the underlying systems and drivers that must then be used to chart out long-term transformation pathways that can guide policies. Such pathways will require input from many different disciplines, but they must also be subject to extensive consultation with key stakeholders to support their buy-in and active support.


Explain to us how such pathways are developed. Does it require a paradigm shift in science? 

Traditionally, science focuses on the unguided expansion of knowledge, and scientists rightly insist on their independence and their prerogative to define the questions they work on. This unguided expansion of knowledge—subject to peer review—has been immensely successful. It has produced the scientific revolution and led to the rich scientific body of knowledge we have today.

Yet, developing pathways towards sustainable development requires an engineering approach to problem solving. Three factors define this approach. First, engineers start with broad specifications of a working system, e.g. a rudimentary car, and then refine the design iteratively to achieve the desired result. Just like an automotive engineer works backward or “back-casts” from the desired car or car part, an earth system scientist developing transformation pathways must work backward from the desired system state. This back-casting asks questions that are different from the ones scientists often address today.

Second, no single person understands all components of a modern car, so engineering has established analytical processes and system-management procedures for dividing up the problem into individual components that can always be fitted back together to yield an integrated system. Different teams work independently on different components with clearly specified interfaces. In this way, tremendous specialization can be achieved in developing one integrated system. Pathways towards sustainable development are just as complex and must therefore be broken down into their constituent components that separate teams can work on.

Third, cars are prototyped and tested relentlessly to identify design weaknesses and improve performance. Similarly, transformation pathways must be tested through consultation with large numbers of stakeholders. Naturally, a business person or human rights leader will look differently at the same transformation pathway. Their input is needed to improve the pathway and make it more acceptable.

A big question for sustainability science today is how it can adopt such an engineering approach to problem solving. On example might be the Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project launched by the SDSN and IDDRI. Under this initiative, each country team back-casts a long-term pathway towards reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions to around 1.7t CO2e. Each pathway considers discrete components and technology questions that can be worked on independently but form part of one integrated system. Similarly, the pathways are subject to review by the different teams and consultation in the countries in order to refine them and to increase their societal acceptance.


How do you recommend non-experts support or engage in the SDGs?

The launching of the SDSN Indonesia Chapter by the President of the Republic of Indonesia on October 6, 2013.

The SDGs can only be achieved through deep transformations in rich and poor countries alike. Such transformations require a shared understanding of the challenges, extensive consultation and buy-in on the solution pathways, unprecedented mobilization, and continuous innovation and learning. In such a world it is difficult to separate the “expert” from the “non-expert,” as many different types of knowledge and experience need to come together. I hope the SDGs can help us understand the challenges we face better and move towards common reference points. For this reason, I hope the goals will be taught in every school and every university. Companies and civil society organizations should ask themselves what the goals mean for them, what they might need to do differently to achieve them, and where they might be able to lead.

Richard Curtis and others have created Project Everyone to popularize the SDGs and to reach out to all stakeholders, including the general public. This project is vitally important and deserves all our support. As a first step, please go to the Project Everyone website after reading this interview to find out how you can support the goals—regardless of whether you think of yourself as an expert or a non-expert.

Are there generic “solutions” to sustainability challenges, or do solutions always need to be city/site specific? How can we promote learning from one country to the next?

In my experience, there are few if any blueprints that can be applied across countries, but countries can learn a lot from one another. The health sector has been most successful in developing rigorous, science-based strategies for combating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other major killers. These strategies were often pioneered in individual countries, and the health community then systematically propagated the lessons to other countries. Since this was coupled with significant funding through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, as well as Gavi, a global vaccine alliance, countries learned quickly. In the short space of perhaps eight years, the knowledge of how to build national systems for the control and treatment of malaria had spread across the whole of Africa.

Of course, no two country strategies are the same. For example, the drivers of the HIV/AIDS pandemic differ markedly across countries, so every country does need a well-adapted strategy. Yet, public health has developed a common set of tools, treatment guidelines, and operational principles that countries can easily adapt to their needs and circumstance. Rigorous monitoring and evaluation ensures that lessons are identified quickly. The challenge now is how to replicate the lessons from health in other sectors, which have not seen similar progress.


Katherine Richardson

Katherine Richardson is a professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre.  She was Chairperson of the Commission on Climate Change...

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