By Gerald Singh, Nereus Fellow

The excitement around Sustainable Development Goals has faded somewhat since the United Nations meeting in 2015, and now comes the less inspiring dirty work of analysis and policy-setting to achieve them. The creation of the Sustainable Development Goals was an unprecedented political effort of agreement across many (nearly all) aspects of world development, with the goal of ending all forms of poverty, fighting inequalities and tackling climate change. But can we get everything we want? Can we indeed grow the world’s economies while simultaneously increasing our protection of natural systems and increasing the rights, incomes, food access, and political power of marginalized people? If this is even theoretically possible, how do we steer in that direction when the status quo of world development is full of embedded trade-offs? Unlocking the nuances of a transition from the world we live in to some vision of the world we want is now the key challenge in sustainability.

These concepts set the backdrop for a series of political meetings the UN is planning, which aim to push the Sustainable Development Goals (hereafter SDGs) from idea to reality. Before they get into politics, the UN hosted several convenings of experts to inform the discussion moving forward. I attended one such meeting earlier this month, where we focused on promoting sustainable consumption and production practices.

Sustainable consumption and production is an SDG that supports many other SDGs and is central to goals as diverse as economic development, building resilient infrastructure, and living in sustainable communities. Fittingly, the expert meeting spanned many disciplines with sessions on transport, food systems, meeting international climate change targets, and achieving sustainable use of the oceans.

At the meeting, consumption and production practices were often discussed as important conduits to the achievement of other SDGs. However, this limits the direction of relationships people were thinking about. Other goals can act as important conduits to sustainable consumption and production (such as achieving sustainable food production and clean energy). Additionally, other goals can provide important context to guide how sustainable consumption and production practices are operationalized. For example, recent research suggests that ocean acidification won’t have the same impact on all shellfish species; some animals will be less affected than others for a variety of reasons (habitat, morphology, diet, etc.). If aquaculture and mariculture are to play a larger role in providing sustainable food for people in the future, then we have to think about what kinds of shellfish species would thrive given future climate projections. Focusing on cultivating those species that are less susceptible to ocean acidification will help ensure that mariculture continues to provide sustainable seafood, even as the pH of the ocean drops. Thinking about SDGs as codependent entities is crucial to achieving the circular models of economy (where waste and outputs of some industries can be used as inputs of other industries) needed to sustainably reform our consumption and production practices.

How do we ensure that SDGs associated with restructuring consumption and production practices can promote mutual benefits without suffering unexpected failures or trade-offs? This is the kind of strategic thinking that is needed to promote the SDGs. It is the kind of thinking needed beyond the aspirational – the kind that will produce practical and feasible transitions.

Addressing the “how do we achieve this?” questions are rarely as inspiring as questions of what we want. Without appropriate strategies, the objectives we are after are unlikely to be met. The Sustainable Development Goals present an opportunity for researchers to engage with an almost comprehensive set of variables in the relationship between people and the planet. It is the ultimate interdisciplinary problem. I hope that if researchers realize the many important research topics around the sustainable development goals, more researchers can be inspired to take part in its planning.