Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals with science-based metrics

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 high-level goals for a better planet, ranging from no more poverty and education for all to protection of the climate, the land and the oceans. Established in 2015, the SDGs set ambitious targets for the year 2030 and are top of mind around the world. A new project has recently started, which will support the Sustainable Development Goals with all the knowledge and experience that life cycle thinking has to offer. Eric Mieras, PRé Managing Director, discusses his recent experiences in Chile and how this project will help connect vision and practice.

Recently I had the honour to be a guest at the Ministry of Environment in Chile, to share our experiences with measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. The meeting was organised by our partner Regenerativa, and also included representatives from other Chilean Ministries. It was great to see how eager all participants were to learn more about this subject and how motivated they were to achieve the UN’s SDGs. It really shows how high this topic is on everyone’s agenda. I was impressed with how much work had already been done to track progress and with the commitment to further improve this. There is even live tracking-information.

One worry I heard attendants of the session express was that not all SDG indicators can be measured. It was reassuring for them that in the Netherlands, too, the conclusion is that only around 50% of the SDG indicators can be measured. There is definitely room for improvement, not only by governments but also by companies. We can learn from the work that has already been done to accelerate the implementation and tracking of progress.

Current shortcomings

As mentioned, one shortcoming is that it is not yet possible to measure all indicators. But even if they could all be measured, they do not require the same amount of attention in each country or company. It is necessary to assess the current situation, identify hotspots and set priorities.

In addition, many targets and indicators are more input than output oriented: they describe what one should do rather than the result we want. How the desired actions would lead to the desired result is not always clearly established. In many cases, the indicators do not measure impact. This makes it difficult to identify trade-offs between different targets and indicators. For instance, improving well-being will most likely have a negative effect on climate change – a higher standard of living usually comes with more consumption.

Connecting top-down and bottom-up, macro and micro

To address these two shortcomings, the lack of measurement and the lack of connection between action and result, we need to look at life cycle thinking. Where the goal-setting process for the SDGs is top-down, the Life Cycle Community can use its knowledge, data and experience to assess products and systems bottom-up.

The community has developed a unique, large repository of data that describes all major relevant supply chains throughout the world, and has combined this with a number of methodologies to translate this data into social and environmental category indicators.

Life cycle thinking to support the Sustainable Development Goals

Together with 2.-0 LCA and supported by the UNEP Life Cycle Initiative, PRé is starting a project “Linking the UN Sustainable Development Goals to life cycle impact pathway frameworks”. The goal is to establish clear links between the top-down process that led to the creation of the SDG’s and all the bottom-up knowledge, data and methodology of Life Cycle Assessment.

The project will bring the qualitative and quantitative impact pathway thinking of Life Cycle Impact Assessment to bear on the 17 SDGs. It will include a range of approaches from qualitative and screening approaches to fully quantified end-point metrics solutions. This way, we can start relating specific decisions to the goals we want to achieve.

Join the stakeholder consultation

The first step will be identifying and inviting decision makers who represent government, business and consumers and relevant experts from the LCA and SDG research fields. Together, we will then establish an agenda for discussion, to understand:

  • the context of how SDGs are being used by decision makers
  • how LCA-based metrics can contribute to that
  • the requirements and wishes of the various stakeholders
  • the need for capacity building.

This stakeholder consultation will take place in the next few months. If you are interested in participating, please contact me for more information.

Eric Mieras

Managing Director

Sustainability is all about impact. Positive impact makes you meaningful. But first you have to know where you are making an impact and where you can create shared value. That’s where PRé comes in. Pinpointing your impact is an essential starting point for taking joint action with people and organisations in your ecosystem. The combination of sustainability and social business can make a real change in the way we do business.

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