THE BLOG
09/23/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

5 Things UN Negotiators Should Do to Ensure the SDGs Are Measurable

This post was co-written with Whitney Johnson, a Master of Environmental Management (MEM'16) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

What can be done to ensure that countries can both measure and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, those that apply to environmental sustainability?

As the world turns its attention towards the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly commencing this week, all eyes are on the proposed set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will replace the set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015 and will inform the UN's development agenda for the next 15 years. However, unlike the MDGs, negotiators are starting to consider indicators and targets for the SDGs early. With 17 proposed goals and around 169 core indicators, the SDGs are nothing short of ambitious -- if not, too ambitious.

Based on our experience developing the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), we provide five recommendations negotiators should keep in mind when debating the content and metrics for the SDGs.

1) K.I.S.S. - Keep the SDGs Simple.

The latest SDG draft proposes 17 goals and 169 associated indicators, numbers that balloon in comparison to those found in the MDGs. The MDGs contained only eight goals and 48 indicators. Both sets are too unwieldy for countries to effectively manage. Even paring down the number of indicators to around 100, as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) recommends, would still amount to roughly six indicators per goal. Because many indicators apply to more than one goal, it may be advantageous for negotiators to look for overlap to reduce the number. Goals should be simple, "tweetable" even.

2) Targets must be clearly defined and universal.

The MDGs were primarily targeted at developing countries, whereas the SDGs are meant to apply universally. With the universality requirement, the divide between "developed" and "developing" is eliminated, potentially also eliminating assistance from developed countries to developing countries for meeting or tracking the SDGs. Many developing countries advocate for language that harkens back to the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities, a concept of international law that is a key tenet of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Many developed countries are opposed. One way to make both sides happy is through tiered targets according to level of economic development, environmental performance, or capacity. Much discussion also centers on whether there should be separate targets for financial support to developing countries, but such mechanisms have been particularly caustic in the UNFCCC negotiations.

3) Goals must also be science-based and measurable.

The SDGs have been criticized for being too political and not science-based. Early drafts of the negotiation text emphasized the need for science-based policy, although specific mention of science-based targets is now excluded. Language for global temperature limits and emission peaks for climate change, for example, has been all but eliminated. This move is reminiscent of the watershed Copenhagen talks in which major emerging economies like China blocked similar language due to uncertainty regarding when emissions would peak.

Part of the problem in adopting these targets is uncertainty with respect to allocation or how responsibility is divided among countries. Should countries who are the greatest contributors to the problem bear the brunt of the responsibility? Should historical considerations be taken into perspective, or the stage of economic development? Leveraging a scientific basis to determine measurable targets is a first step.

4) Aid for data must be increased.

Another challenge faced by the MDGs was the amount of time between data collection and data reporting, in some cases a three-year lag. At minimum, annual reporting must be required, and ideally infrastructure would be instated to support eventual real-time data collection. Countries face technical and capacity issues with respect to their ability to collect and report data in a timely manner.

International aid towards data collection and reporting remains at less than $500 million USD per year, representing only a fraction of total development assistance. If the SDGs are expected to involve a 'Data Revolution,' more investment needs to be made to increase capacity in countries that suffer from low statistical expertise or limited technical infrastructure.

5) Assemble a more diverse team of actors that can contribute to data.

Multiple and new actors can help move closer to the so-called 'Data Revolution' for the SDGs. As a team of Yale EPI researchers argued earlier this year in Nature, governments are not up to the task of collecting the much-needed data to track progress for the SDGs. Major gaps exist for understanding agricultural impacts on the environment and the sustainability of food production, water quality, species loss - to name a few. The Data Revolution is already happening in the business and tech sectors, so the SDG process needs to open official channels by which these non-state, non-traditional actors can participate.

Data can also be driven from the bottom-up. Already, the UN sourced an impressive number of datapoints globally through its MyWorld initiative to crowdsource feedback on global SDG priorities. This effort is proof-of-concept that innovative data sourcing techniques exist and can be used. Now is the time to capitalize on these early successes to extend creative data collection to the crowd.

Time is running out for negotiators to frame the SDG targets and indicators in measurable and actionable ways. The early inclusion of data-related discussion in crafting the SDGs is encouraging, however it is not enough. It is critical that the SDGs be tied to a manageable set of simple, specific, and measurable indicators that harness available data-collection techonolgy. Countries must know exactly what to track and be equiped to do so. Negotiators must structure a more equitable and sustainable path towards realizing the SDGs, and in doing so, line it with opportunities to course-correct along the way.