Sustainable Development Goals

ICSU provides input and advice on the SDGs throughout their development and implementation in a number of ways.

Implementation of the SDGs: From 2015 to today

From 1992-2015, ICSU has been continuously involved via multiple mechanisms and its partner organizations to push for a sound scientific basis for the goals. Since the goals were adopted by the world’s governments in 2015, ICSU continues to argue for science to have a strong role in their implementation, notably via the four mechanisms described below.

Technical advisor and synthesis

ICSU develops special independent reports which bring together a broad range of scientific disciplines and communities. The latest report, Guide to SDG Interactions: From Science to Implementation, is intended to be a tool for national policymakers and other stakeholders to understand and explore the interactions between SDGs and their targets.

High Level Political Forum (HLPF)

Strengthening the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development was one of the two themes of Rio+20. Agreement was reached at the summit to establish a high-level political forum (HLPF) as the new deliberating body for sustainable development in the UN. The UN General Assembly in September 2015 asserted that the High-Level Political Forum will have a central role in overseeing a network of follow-up and review processes of the 2030 Agenda at the global level, working coherently with the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and other relevant bodies. It also decided that for the purposes of the thematic reviews of progress on the 2030 Agenda, the HLPF shall follow a four-year review cycle, while reflecting the integrated, indivisible and interlinked nature of the SDGs and three dimensions of sustainable development. Every four years the HLPF will meet at the level of heads of states and governments in the context of the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. In the three preceding years of the four-year cycle, the HLPF will meet in the context of the annual session of ECOSOC.The review of progress implementing the SDGs to be undertaken by the HLPF will be based on voluntary national reviews to be organized by governments and other relevant written input, including input prepared by non-governmental stakeholders. UN member states are encouraged to each carry out two voluntary national reviews at the HLPF between 2015 and 2030. The UN General Assembly also decided that meetings of the HLPF shall be open to the major groups and other relevant stakeholders.The HLPF shall be informed by the quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report and the annual Sustainable Development Report prepared by the UN Secretary General in cooperation with the UN system. The annual summary of the discussions by the co-chairs of the multistakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs, as well as other relevant reports and documents shall be feed into the work of the HLPF.The first meeting of the HLPF took place in June 2016 at the UN in New York. The second meeting will take place in July 2017 at the UN in New York. The first meeting of the HLPF convened at the level of heads of state and government is to be held in 2019. ICSU is working to inform and contribute to the discussions at the annual meetings of HLPF by submitting position papers on behalf of the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group, in cooperation with ISSC and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), facilitating attendance of scientists from the ICSU community and organising side events on the thematic issues under review by the HLPF.

Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR)

Governments at Rio+20 decided that the policy deliberations at the High-Level Political Forum should be informed by the regular preparation of a Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR). Following an “assessment of assessments” approach, the GSDR “shall strengthen the science-policy interface and could provide a strong evidence-based instrument to support policy makers in promoting poverty eradication and sustainable development”. In 2014, 2015 and 2016 the UN published three prototype editions of the Global Sustainable Development Report. At the HLPF in 2016, it was decided that the GSDR should be published every four years, with the next edition scheduled for 2019, when the HLPF will meet at the level of head-of state and government under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. ICSU, as organizing partner for the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group, has been very actively involved in the preparation of the three prototype editions of the GSDR. Every edition of the Report relies critically on input from scientists, both as providers of contributions to the report and as part of the quality insurance process for the report. The 2016 GSDR was based on inputs from more than 500 scientists and scientific institutions across the world. ICSU has also co-organized with the UN Division of Sustainable Development expert meetings related to the preparation of these reports. For example, an expert meeting held at ICSU headquarters in Paris in October 2015 addressed the topics of identifying emerging issues and conducting peer review in the context of the context of the preparation of the GSDR. Planning work for the 2019 edition of the GSDR began in 2016, and ICSU and the UN Division on Sustainable Development have agreed to continue their collaboration around the report. Before leaving office, former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed 15 eminent scientists and experts to oversee the preparation of the Report.

Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) for the SDGs

The Forum is one of the four key elements of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) established by the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, agreed at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in 2015. The other three elements are: (i) an online platform on STI for the SDGs; (ii) a UN Inter-Agency Task Team on science, technology and innovation (IATT); and a 10-Member Group to support the TFM (with representatives of the scientific community, civil society and the private sector). The STI Forum to be held annually prior to the meetings of the HLPF is the only STI dedicated body with a formal link to the HLPF. It is a multi-stakeholder forum with participation of government representatives, scientists, STI experts, as well as civil society and business representatives. The Forum is mandated to discuss science, technology and innovation around the thematic areas under review in the HLPF. The outcome of these discussions is fed into the subsequent HLPF meeting. Responsibility for the preparation of the programme of the Forum is with the IATT and the 10-Member Group. Currently, the ICSU Executive Director is a co-chair of the 10-Member Group.ICSU participates in the meetings of the Forum and facilitates participation of scientists from its Interdisciplinary Bodies as panellists and speakers. Similarly, ICSU organizes or facilitates the organization of side events at each STI Forum.The first STI Forum was held in 2016 with ICSU playing an active role as described above. The Forum was attended by more than 600 participants representing 81 governments and more than 35O scientists, innovators, technology specialists and civil society representatives. The programme of the 2017 edition is available here.

History of ICSU’s involvement in the SDG process

Throughout the process to define the Sustainable Development Goals, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and its partner organizations have continuously pushed for a sound scientific basis for these goals and a strong role for science in their implementation.

The development of the SDGs was mandated at the Rio+20 summit in 2012, where ICSU and the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) worked as the organizing partners for the scientific and technological community major group. During the Rio+20 preparatory process, the scientific and technological community strongly supported the proposal by Colombia and Guatemala to include among the recommendations to be adopted by the summit the development of universally applicable SDGs.

In preparation for the adoption of the Rio+20 outcome document “The Future We Want”, ICSU coordinated inputs from the leading research programmes on global environmental change that culminated in the Planet Under Pressure conference (London, March 2012) which produced a number of policy briefs for Rio+20. ICSU, in cooperation with UNESCO and other partners, organized the international forum on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development which brought together many leading international scientists, policy-makers, industry, NGOs, journalists and youth from more than 75 countries to explore the key role of interdisciplinary science and innovation in the transition to sustainable development, a green economy and poverty eradication. Future Earth was launched at Rio+20 as a major new platform for catalyzing research to achieve a transformation towards global sustainability.

The UN-led process to develop the SDGs was open and inclusive, involving an extensive consultation of stakeholders. Throughout the process, ICSU has worked closely with its research programmes like Future Earth, IRDR, Urban Health and Wellbeing and the other official organizing partners of the scientific and technological community, ISSC and WFEO, to facilitate input from the scientific community. ICSU particularly contributed the following:

  • At Rio+20, ICSU launched Future Earth together with partners (ISSC, Belmont Forum, UNESCO, UNEP, UNU and WMO), a major international research platform aimed at providing the knowledge to accelerate our transformation towards a sustainable world. Future Earth brings together thousands of scientists across all disciplines, and seeks to engage with other stakeholders to contribute to achieving the SDGs.
  • Provided thought leadership through the publication of opinion pieces in major scientific and development publications.
  • Provided written input into the discussions of the UN Open Working Group (OWG) mandated to prepare a set of proposed Sustainable Development Goals by July 2014.
  • Championed science and delivered statements on behalf of the scientific community at the meetings of the OWG, at the interactive dialogues within the further intergovernmental negotiations in 2015, and the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development.
  • Co-organized and participated in side events and expert workshops around these meetings to co-ordinate scientific engagement into the substance of these discussions
  • Provided written contributions to the development of the first two Global Sustainable Development Reports (GSDR), intended as an evidence-based tool for decision makers synthesizing existing knowledge on sustainable development and promoting a strong science-policy interface.
  • Co-ordinated and published the first independent scientific review of the targets that are intended to operationalize the SDGs, in partnership with ISSC, in February 2015. The review of the targets conducted by over 40 scientists found overall that the SDGs offer a major improvement over the MDGs, with a greater understanding of the interplay between the social, economic, environmental and governance dimensions, and inclusion of systemic barriers to sustainable development such as unsustainable consumption and production patterns and inequality. And where the MDGs only dealt with developing countries, the new set of goals is applicable to all countries. However, the scientific community also expressed concerns over the lack of an overall goal providing a means to end continuum i.e. an overall narrative to bind together the SDGs, the large number of targets, and in many cases, their lack of specificity, and the challenge of harnessing the relevant data to measure progress effectively.

Scientists have strongly mobilized around the SDGs and have taken the measure of the importance of the consensus achieved globally on a set of goals for people and the planet. However, achieving this ambitious agenda will require strengthening the science-policy interface to promote stronger and more systematic collaboration between scientists, policy-makers and societal groups. In this regard, science should not only be recognized as an observer, but also as an advisor and a partner to promote evidence based decision-making, as highlighted also by the UN Scientific Advisory Board. To this end, ICSU will continue to contribute to the preparation of the Global Sustainable Development Reports (GSDRs) in the coming years, alongside other activities to strengthen science advice to governments.