Reframing the sustainable development goals to achieve sustainable development in the anthropocene—a systems approach

Michelle M. L. Lim, Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, Carina A. Wyborn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Citations (Scopus)
273 Downloads (Pure)


Griggs et al. (2013) redefine sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.” We recommend this as the end goal that the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) should strive to achieve. Integration across the SDGs is less than what is required from a science perspective. Effective implementation of the SDGs will require States to attend to trade-offs and overlaps. We argue that continuous failure to address integration within the SDGs will jeopardize realization of this ultimate end goal. Therefore, we adopt a systems approach to identify gaps and connections across the goals and targets of the SDGs as well as leverage points for effective intervention. We triangulate across methods of critical analysis, conceptual modeling, and keyword network analysis to draw out seven “overarching directions” that could provide a prioritization framework to enhance efficient implementation of the SDGs. Our results identify main gaps as exclusion of key actors (e.g., corporations) and issues (e.g., intergenerational equity and population); inadequate reconciliation of economic growth with maintaining the Earth system; and deficient consideration of the relationship with international law. Conceptual mapping identifies education and innovation; governance and implementation; sustainable consumption and production; and addressing the key drivers of climate change as key leverage points. The keyword analysis highlights greater integration within the SDGs than what appears at face value. Keywords “access,” “women,” “resources,” and “finance” feature across the SDGs and provide further leverage points. Targeting these issues will facilitate realization of a high proportion of SDGs and correspondingly could have a disproportional impact on effective SDG implementation. We conclude that the success of the SDGs needs to be evaluated by the extent to which it contributes to human development while advancing protection of “planetary must-haves” for current and future generations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number22
Number of pages19
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2018. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • implementation
  • sustainable development goals
  • systems approach


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