Skip to content

Earth System Challenges and a Multi-layered Approach for the Sustainable Development Goals

Young, Oran R, Arild Underdal, Norichika Kanie, Steinar Andresen, Steven Bernstein, Frank Biermann, Joyeeta Gupta, Peter M. Haas, Masahiko Iguchi, Marcel Kok, Marc Levy, Måns Nilsson, László Pintér, Casey Stevens. 2014. Earth System Challenges and a Multi-layered Approach for the Sustainable Development Goals. Post2015 / UNU-IAS Policy Brief, Nr. 1.


The International Workshop on Governance ‘of’ and ‘for’ Sustainable Development Goals, held 1 February 2014, in New York, USA, resulted in a series of policy briefs, whereof this is the first.

Key messages of Policy Brief #1:

  • The Earth system has entered a new phase in which human actions are threatening the planet’s life support systems and drawing down the planet’s natural capital in an unsustainable manner. It is essential that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reconfirm the commitments of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused on human wellbeing by alleviating poverty, enhancing food and water security, and improving health. But the SDGs must also address issues of Earth system governance and the challenge of redirecting unsustainable practices of individuals, groups, and countries worldwide.
  • The way forward is to adopt a multi-layered approach encompassing: – Individual goals and targets framed in such a way that they can serve as focal points for a wide range of stakeholders.
  • – Targets framed in global terms but – where possible and relevant – tailored at regional, national, local, or corporate/organizational levels to provide a menu of options
    allowing actors with different needs and capabilities to select those best suited for them.
    – Indicators and monitoring capabilities with the capacity to track change and report on progress.
  • The formulation of the SDGs offers rich opportunities to bridge gaps among sectoral silos by framing goals that are cross-cutting and integrative in nature and, if achieved, meet current needs articulated in the MDGs while ensuring that future generations can meet their own needs continuously. A well-designed performance review system, such as a “Global Sustainable Development Report” and comparable reporting mechanisms at the national level, and roles given to actors beyond national states will be essential, given the complexity of the agenda and the need for accountable implementation. For the review of SDGs, one new dimension needed is to include monitoring the key aspects of Earth system transformation.

The workshop was organized by the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), the Earth System Governance Project and the POST2015 project (hosted by Tokyo Institute of Technology and sponsored by Ministry of Environment, Japan). It brought together international scholars and practitioners with expertise on global environmental governance to discuss some key questions relating to the governance of, and governance for, the post-2015 development agenda. The scope of the workshop was the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with particular focus on how integrated SDGs (of development and environmental agenda) could be governed in the post-2015 era.

The resulting policy briefs were officially released at the policy forum: ‘Governance’, ‘Education’ and the Architecture of the Sustainable Development Goals, held 22 May 2014, in New York and co-organized by UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) and the POST2015 Project (hosted by Tokyo Institute of Technology). This event aims to inform discussions taking place at the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by identifying key questions relating to the architecture and implementation of the SDGs.

You might like these publication categories

Recent publications

Building Capabilities for Earth System Governance

This Element develops a new Strategic Capabilities Framework for studying and steering complex socio-ecological systems. It is driven by the…

Trade and the Environment: Drivers and Effects of Environmental Provisions in Trade Agreements

The mushrooming of trade agreements and their interlinkages with environmental governance calls for new research on the trade and environment…

The Politics of Deep Time

Human societies increasingly interact with processes on a geological or even cosmic timescale. Despite this recognition, we still lack a…