SDGs failing to have meaningful impact, research warns

06/20/2022 - Sustainability has never been higher on the international agenda. But an international assessment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—the 17 global goals used by governments, companies, and NGOs worldwide to guide action towards a prosperous and just future—shows they are having limited impact, and may instead be contributing to greenwashing. Two years into the decisive decade for humanity's future on Earth, fundamental changes are needed if we are to shift onto a sustainable and resilient path, argue the authors of the study in Nature Sustainability.
SDGs failing to have meaningful impact, research warns
Limited impact: The SDGs under scrutiny.

The assessment, which was led by Utrecht University in the Netherlands, looked at over 3000 studies from the scientific literature, think tanks and research institutes to try to understand how the goals are influencing global and national debates, laws and policies, as well as broader changes to political institutions.

Limited transformative political impact of the SDGs

It found that although the goals may be changing the way governments and other organisations understand and communicate about sustainability, there is little evidence—seven years after their launch and eight years before they are supposed to be achieved—that the SDGs are contributing to reducing inequalities, climate action, or better protection of biodiversity and nature. Despite extensive PR campaigns surrounding the goals, “we see no strong evidence of funding being reallocated to sustainable development, that new or more demanding laws are being established because of the SDGs, or that policies are becoming more stringent,” says Frank Biermann, professor at Utrecht University and lead author of the study. “And changes we do see often reflect processes launched well before the 2030 Agenda came into force”.

Conflicting goals

There is also evidence that the goals’ focus is often at odds with a future that is fair and just for both people and nature. For example, while the SDGs may help to highlight the environment as an important concern, global economic growth as envisaged in SDG 8 can be argued to be incompatible with environmental protection, under the current development trend. "We need to leverage synergies and break-way trade-offs among the SDGs to meet the 2030 Agenda," emphasizes co-author Prajal Pradhan from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "And understanding these interactions requires quantitative and qualitative analysis of empirical and modelled data, literature, and expert opinions."

Evidence of greenwashing

The private sector is not immune either. “It’s increasingly clear that SDG-related rhetoric is being used to camouflage business as usual,” says co-author Thomas Hickmann, an assistant professor at Lund University in Sweden. Despite this, there have also been modest successes. The research shows that civil society actors in several countries are increasingly holding governments accountable for their commitments to ‘leaving no one behind’, mobilising participation, and bringing to the table the voices of those on the frontlines of poverty, inequality, and vulnerability.

A change in approach crucial

The assessment consists of a book and a journal article synthesising the book’s core insights. “If the goals are having limited impact and are instead contributing to maintaining the destructive status quo, now is the moment we must fundamentally change the way we do things,” urges Professor Biermann.

Note: This is based on a press release by Utrecht University. The original text has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Biermann, F., Hickmann, T., Sénit, C. A., Beisheim, M., Bernstein, S., Chasek, P., Pradhan, P., ... & Wicke, B. (2022). Scientific Evidence on the Political Impact of the Sustainable Development Goals. Nature Sustainability.


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