The second of its kind, the report is intended to provide guidance on the state of global sustainable development from a scientific perspective, which will help address the implementation of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. The ambition and complexity of the SDGs highlights the need for sustainable development to be approached from multiple angles, with the report allowing the scientific community to offer its perspective and recommendations for making progress on the goals and meeting global targets.

The 2023 report will follow the 2019 assessment in which it was noted that despite early positive developments following the 2015 adoption of the SDGs, “the world is not on track for achieving most of the 169 targets that comprise the Goals.” While the next report is to be delivered in 2023, work will begin this month, in October 2020. The timing of the work means that the report will be developed within the context of the disruption of COVID-19, which has put the need for coordinated efforts to deliver on poverty eradication and sustainable development in sharp relief.

The group of 15 independent scientists come from diverse countries and disciplines, with Åsa bringing more than 18 years of research experience on policies and governance for translating global aspirations for sustainable development into national action.

  • Q

    What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

    A

    First off, I am delighted to be given this opportunity to inform the pursuit of Agenda 2030 and the 17 SDGs with scientific evidence and new ideas. In 2023, we will have reached the zenith of the 15-year lifespan of the world’s most ambitious sustainable development plan so far. My hope and expectation are that the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report will provide a critical and comprehensive mid-term review, but also provide focused, evidence-based and actionable messages on what needs to be done to accelerate action. There is so much evidence that this decade will be decisive for a range of issues —climate change, biodiversity loss, eliminating hunger, reducing inequalities—so there really is no time to waste.

  • Q

    What do you see as a central challenge for the group?

    A

    Working with the Independent Group of Scientists, we have a huge responsibility to synthesize the best science on sustainable development and identify new and critical insights. Given the breadth of Agenda 2030 and the rapidly expanding science around sustainable development, it will definitely be very challenging. But knowledge synthesis and learning the latest in scientific fields far from my own are what I personally enjoy a lot. Science at its best is a collective organism that not only validates and fine-tunes robust knowledge but also generates new ideas as part of the process. It is teamwork.

“My hope and expectation is that the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report will provide a critical and comprehensive mid-term review of the SDGs, but also provide clear, focused and actionable messages on what needs to be done to accelerate action.”

  • Q

    What part of the work are you most looking forward to?

    A

    I am looking forward to learning more about science produced in different parts of the world, not least through the very high geographical diversity of scientists in the Group. This will be particularly interesting and relevant given the recent calls that we need to improve geographical representation and diversity in science, which I fully subscribe to. There needs to be a truly global input of scientific evidence and perspectives if we are to have a globally relevant and legitimate GSDR.

  • Q

    How would you describe your research journey to this appointment?

    A

    My research journey started with waste policy at the national level and continued to the planetary boundaries framework, climate adaptation and finance at the international level, chemicals policy, and SDG follow-up and review. My latest research projects are looking at conflicts and synergies in national implementation of climate goals and SDGs, with particular focus on inequality and the under-researched SDG10—Reduce inequality within and among countries.

  • Q

    Does the world really need another scientific report on sustainable development?

    A

    Having committed to an indivisible Agenda 2030, it is also absolutely necessary to have a report covering all parts of the agenda and all pillars of sustainable development. While there are a lot of reports out there, science today needs a continuously central place at the table, in my opinion. We recently made an overview of all the new scientific assessments and reports on environmental issues coming out in the next few years, ahead of Stockholm+50 and UNEP@50 in 2022 and HLPF in 2023 , so there will clearly be an intense output of reports. For this reason, it will be very important to find the right scope of the GSDR, to cross-reference other work and to develop high-quality, relevant and focused recommendations.

    With the 2019 GSDR as a predecessor and reference point, I am convinced that we as a Group will be able to build on and then advance key insights. Policy-makers, business, civil society, the public —all change agents—need in-depth knowledge about specific issues. But if we are to make progress on the full agenda, there is a strong need to look at the big picture and the interlinkages between goals.

“I think the most overarching and most pervasive threat to sustainable development since the concept was first invented, is short-termism. Indeed, the very idea of something being ‘sustainable’ is that it should last over time.”

  • Q

    What would you say is missing from current research on sustainable development?

    A

    I think at this point—five years into implementation—we need to look beyond all the SDG targets and indicators and our performance on them, and really focus on the fundamental drivers of unsustainable development. So, in a way, it makes more sense to have unsustainable development as the analytical focus: What are the systemic, fundamental drivers behind the trends that we see? Why are we not advancing fast enough, or even reversing, on some goals?

    Our research at SEI has shown that inequality is one such fundamental driver. I look forward to digging into the evidence base on the relationship between inequality and sustainable development and understanding how the many and complex dimensions of inequality can be addressed.

  • Q

    What changes would you like to see in the approach to research on sustainable development?

    A

    While we need to make an unprecedented increase in the level of ambition on sustainable development in this decade, I also think we need to be a bit more humble with the focus on ‘solutions’. Providing ‘solutions’ is like the fast food of science—it is tempting to devise them, but in reality, science alone will not provide solutions. You need to have practitioners involved for feasibility (engineers, lawyers, planners, etc.), business for new business models and you need to have public acceptability. A certain degree of humility does not mean slow or silent science, but focusing on distilling the key messages coming from natural and social science to help build workable and effective solutions that can have a transformative effect.

  • Q

    What are the biggest threats and opportunities for sustainable development today?

    A

    I think the most overarching and most pervasive threat to sustainable development since the concept was first invented, is short-termism. Indeed, the very idea of something being ‘sustainable’ is that it should last over time. It follows that decisions need to be taken and investments need to be made with a long-term perspective. This is too often not the case, due to individual myopia and market expectations. But also due to lack of knowledge about future opportunities or future implications of today’s decisions. This is where science should come in, to help predict, anticipate, and challenge current thinking.

    As for the biggest opportunity, I have recently been surprised and encouraged to see the growing and more broad-based public support for more climate action, green deals and sustainable development. This includes some recent and multi-country public opinion polls during the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. To me, this is a possible game-changer for sustainable development, but it depends of course how leaders interpret and respond to public support. As a social scientist, I am glad to see there is now more focus on not just the end vision of sustainable development, but also on the transition process. As we have seen in climate policy, there will be costs and losers in the short term and most policies have redistributive effects. These need to be navigated and this is where science has a role in providing a robust evidence base.