Natural Hazards Research Spotlight

Measuring Progress Toward Sustainable Goals

Grouping targets that need to be hit into composite goals may help countries evaluate their progress toward sustainable development targets laid out by the United Nations.

Source: Earth's Future


On 25 September 2015, 193 countries of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly came together in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to help end poverty, tackle inequality, and combat climate change in the next 15 years. To ensure that countries remain on track to achieve these goals, the 2030 Agenda also came up with a set of more than 300 specific targets for countries to hit along the way.

Currently, there is no good way of measuring a country’s progress toward achieving approximately one third of the targets listed. In a new study, Rickels et al. discuss how composite targets—that is, combinations of single targets—can help countries track the progress toward reaching sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources.

The authors believe that using composite indicators can help weigh the potential trade-offs between goals. In the marine tourism sector, for example, boosting the industry can create jobs, but it might also have negative effects on preserving biodiversity.

The authors created a nesting structure, where they grouped various targets into different cohorts. For example, two of the targets—to reduce carbon emissions and increase stocks of natural products—were grouped under the overarching goal of minimizing ocean acidification. These goals were then nested under the overall goal of achieving sustainable development of the country’s marine resources, instead of just looking at single targets. The researchers then applied a Monte Carlo sensitivity analysis, a commonly used technique that allows investigators to weigh multiple factors against one another to come up with a final “score.” In this case, the Monte Carlo analysis calculated how countries were doing in terms of attaining their different goals, depending on scenarios representing weak or strong sustainability.

With the nesting structure, the authors evaluated how the countries in the European Union (EU) are currently faring in attaining the sustainable development goals (SDGs). They found that, generally, EU coastal states are addressing all goals equally, except for countries like Portugal, Spain, and Greece, which were inconsistent in attaining the SDG targets.

Although there is currently no codified scheme to evaluate these SDGs, using composite information of targets hit—rather than individual ones—to look at how countries are faring is an important step in assessing countries’ progress toward the goals proposed in the UN’s agenda. (Earth’s Future, doi:10.1002/2016EF000353, 2016)

—Wudan Yan, Freelance Writer

Citation: Yan, W. (2016), Measuring progress toward sustainable goals, Eos, 97, Published on 24 June 2016.
Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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