In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ with 169 more specific targets as part of their new global ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. The ambition expressed in these documents is unprecedented. But can such goal setting, as a new central approach in global governance, help resolve the pressing challenges of economic development, poverty eradication, social justice and global environmental protection? Nobody knows at this stage. While the United Nations and some of its member states place high hopes on this novel strategy, there is little scientific knowledge on whether such global goals can live up to exceedingly grand expectations. Sustainability research has tended to focus on concrete institutions, actors and practices – not on aspirational goals that bring little in terms of normative specificity, stable regime formation or compliance mechanisms. 

How can the SDGs nonetheless be effective – and under which conditions? 

To address this important research question, I have launched in 2018 the ‘GlobalGoals Project’, a five-year research programme to study whether the SDGs had any impact so far on politics, from local to global, and from the public to the private sector. This project is based at Utrecht University and funded through an European Research Council Advanced Grant. Internationally, we collaborate with a team of over 60 leading scholars to jointly analyse and assess the existing literature on the impacts of the SDGs. A global network of research institutions supports this assessment process. 

Key publications include:

Governing through Goals: Sustainable Development Goals as Governance Innovation (book with MIT Press, 2017)

Global governance by goal-setting: the novel approach of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (open access article)

© 2020 Frank Biermann