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Research frontiers on the governance of the Sustainable Development Goals

This article takes stock of the 2030 Agenda and focuses on five governance areas. The authors report patchy and often primarily symbolic uptake of the global goals. Although some studies highlight individual success stories of actors and institutions to implement the goals, it remains unclear how such cases can be upscaled and develop a broader political impact to accelerate the global endeavor to achieve sustainable development.

Ivonne Lobos Alva, Thomas Hickmann, Frank Biermann, Carole-Anne Sénit, Yixian Sun, Magdalena Bexell, Mitzi Bolton, Basil Bornemann, Jecel Censoro, Aurelie Charles, Dominique Coy, Frederik Dahlmann, Mark Elder, Felicitas Fritzsche, Thiago Gehre Galvão, Jarrod Grainger-Brown, Cristina Inoue, Kristina Jönsson, Montserrat Koloffon Rosas, Kerstin Krellenberg, Enayat Moallemi, Shirin Malekpour, Dianty Ningrum, Aneliya Paneva, Lena Partzsch, Rodrigo Ramiro, Rob Raven, Eszter Szedlacsek, John Thompson, Melanie van Driel, Jéssica Viani Damasceno, Robert Webb, Sabine Weiland / Published on 16 February 2024

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Hickmann, T., Biermann, F., Sénit, C.-A., Sun, Y., Bexell, M., Bolton, M., Bornemann, B., Censoro, J., Charles, A., Coy, D., Dahlmann, F., Elder, M., Fritzsche, F., Gehre Galvão, T., Grainger-Brown, J., Inoue, C., Jönsson, K., Koloffon Rosas, M., Krellenberg, K., … Weiland, S. (2024). Scoping article: Research frontiers on the governance of the Sustainable Development Goals. Global Sustainability, 7, e7.

Photo: pradologue/Unsplash

The SDG Impact Assessment was the first comprehensive study that focused on the political steering effects of the SDGs on the governance of sustainable development across actors, sectors, and levels. Despite the lack of substantial political impact of the SDGs, this study pointed to several governance areas where initial political changes occurred due to the SDGs. Building upon these insights, we conducted an online expert survey that we directed at the members of the Earth System Governance Project, which is the largest global research alliance on sustainability governance with more than 500 scholars across the globe mainly from the social sciences and humanities (Earth System Governance Project, 2023). The survey comprised 15 questions and entailed closed and open-response options. The main rationale of the survey was to solicit the opinions of field experts on the areas in which they see the strongest impact of the SDGs on actors and institutions at various governance levels, as well as on the themes they perceive as deserving more attention in future research on the SDGs. Following an initial personal invitation in April 2021 and a reminder via email, a total of 49 experts took part in the survey (the survey questions are available as supplementary material).

This online expert survey led to insights into five key governance areas in which the adoption of the SDGs generated some political steering effects:

  • Global governance for the SDGs: the impact of the SDGs on international institutions set in place to promote goal implementation.
  • National policy integration of the SDGs: the impact of the SDGs on strengthening institutions and policies for sustainable development in national governments.
  • Subnational initiatives for SDG implementation: the impact of the SDGs on efforts by subnational authorities to foster sustainable development in their jurisdictions.
  • Private governance for the SDGs: the impact of the SDGs on the private sector
  • Education and learning for sustainable development: the impact of the SDGs on knowledge and higher education institutions.

While some of these areas are widely studied, current scholarship has not comprehensively focused on the conditions that trigger or hamper sustainability transformations across countries, sectors, and levels of governance. After the identification of these five areas, the authors established five working groups under the “Taskforce on the SDGs” of the Earth System Governance Project in which the different governance areas were further scrutinized. They present the main findings from the discussions in these working groups in a condensed version in this paper.

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SEI author

Ivonne Lobos Alva

Team Leader: Sustainable Transitions; Senior Expert

SEI Latin America

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