Sustainable Development Goals: The complexity of an integrated framework


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an unprecedented step towards a sustainable development agenda. Seeking to mobilise global efforts and achieve the integration of economic, social and sustainable development, the SDGs focus essentially on ending extreme poverty, reducing inequality and injustice, promoting prosperity and wellbeing whilst protecting the environment (UN, 2019). Since their creation in 2015, there has been much debate regarding the outcomes of the SDGs. Considered a useful communication tool that conveys a sense of a shared purpose (Howes, 2018 printed interview), the SDGs can also be considered as a much more complex and comprehensive set of guidelines than their predecessors; the 2000s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For instance, since the turn of the century, the legacy of the MDGs is visible through the significant progress of countries managing poverty, reducing child mortality and the continuous efforts in fighting HIV and Malaria (SDG guide, 2019). Hence, it can be argued that there is hope that the SDGs are indeed achievable. Yet, there remain a number of key challenges which need to be addressed in order to effectively implement the strategies and action plans necessary for their success.

The following paper discusses the opportunities and challenges still faced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their implementation and coordination of local, national and global governance arrangements, the monitoring and progress evaluation, and the integration and translation of global ambitions into national contexts. Finally, Australia’s own implementation of the SDGs will be briefly reviewed.

SDGs: An integrated network

In the year 2000, leaders from 189 countries shared and agreed on a vision for the new millennium to halve extreme poverty. The world’s nations developed a list of eight goals, measured by 18 targets which together constituted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with the ambition to reach them in the next 15 years.

Following and expanding on the MDGs agreed by governments in 2001, representatives and world leaders from 70 countries met in September of 2015 at the United Nations in New York. Together, they developed one of the most ambitious international development cooperation agendas, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN, 2015). As part of this agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, released and ratified by the United Nations.

The SDGs are universal, they cover all aspects of sustainability, apply to all nations and aim to provide clear guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own national priorities and specific challenges (UN, 2015). Comprised of 17 goals, 169 targets and over 300 indicators -for quantitative measurement- the SDGs are regarded as the most significant global effort towards sustainable development. The SDGs encompass an extensive range of development issues, from eradicating poverty and reducing inequality to empowering women, embracing economic growth and environmental protection (UN, 2015).

One of the most significant qualities of the SDGs is that they seek to create a link between the social, economic and environmental spheres. This is of great significance given that scientific evidence shows that the growing pressure on the planet’s natural resources has put Earth’s life support system at risk. As an illustration, the world’s population in 2015 was more than 7.3 billion people (Australian Academy of Science 2019) yet according to the United Nations (2019) population is expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050. Consequently, this will cause potentially irreversible changes in Earth’s environment such as extreme weather, ocean acidification, the deterioration of ecosystems, sea-level rise, changes in food and water consumption and production and an increase of waste products (Griggs et al. 2014; CSIRO 2018).

In this way, the SDGs represent an exceptional opportunity to develop an integrated framework that recognises the need to operate within the ecological means of planet Earth (Griggs, 2014; Young et al. 2015; Wackernagel et al. 2017). The unprecedented challenges of the new global reality make the pursuit of sustainable development imperative. In this sense, the 2019 SDGs United Nations Report has highlighted climate change as the most crucial area for action.

Implementation and monitoring
Uncoordinated, semi-monitored action can lead to failure. Given the SDGs non-binding, aspirational nature and their broad and complex nature (Fleming et al. 2017) the success of the SDGs is still compromised by a number of implementation and engagement challenges. Biermann et al. (2017) explain “although the SDGs are grounded in international law, they are not legally binding […] and the UN General Assembly is in no way intended to grant immediate legal force to the goals”. Moreover, governments have no legal obligation to acknowledge and follow the goals as a national/regional law which denotes an important problem, as governance through moral commitments tracked solely by semi-regulated institutions might result in vague and weak policies (Pogge & Sengupta, 2015).

As argued by Young (2017) governance through goals is possible when commitments are formalised, targets are clear, measurable and have been pledged by governments equally. The SDGs will depend on national implementation and the efficacy of the institutions coordinating the goals and monitoring progress (Fukuda-Parr, 2014; Dickens et al. 2019). The most significant element of this issue is that developed or high-income countries unlike developing countries, are not constrained by a reduced financial and limited technological capacity. Similarly, the effectiveness of governmental institutions in charge of monitoring depends on every country.

The 2018 UN report on the SDGs states that proper monitoring, reporting and accountability are still insufficient. Hence, the need to improve the coordination of current global, national and regional monitoring and reporting progress. However, the fact that the formulation of the SDGs offers an opportunity to find a way to connect both global and local governance should not be overlooked.

The significance of an effective implementation and the necessity of proper monitoring of progress has been taken further by Stafford-Smith et al. (2015) who suggest recognising the “interlinkages across sectors (e.g., finance, agriculture, energy, technology, and transport); societal actors (authorities, government, agencies, private sector and civil society); and between and among low, medium and high income countries” to facilitate the international coordination of actions. This is in line with the view of Young et al. (2015) who propose to adopt a “multi-layered approach encompassing global and individual goals that i) consider planetary scale processes, ii) properly frame goals and targets, iii) include regional, national, local and corporate framed targets and iv) involve enhanced indicators and monitoring”. Therefore, it can be argued that to maximize synergies, the targets for the SDGs need to be measurable and refined, while a smaller number of goals would most likely simplify the implementation and monitoring process; most importantly, as stated by Griggs et al. (2014) considering the urgent need to address the environment protection embracing a unified environmental and social framework for the SDGs is fundamental.

SDGs in Australia
Australia is one of the 193 members of the United Nations that agreed on the SDGs. In September 2016 the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), the Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA) and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Australia/Pacific came together to hold the inaugural Australian SDGs Summit. Since, these organisations are taking on the role of leading advocates for the SDGs in Australia, creating awareness and developing tools to support engagement and action on the SDGs (ASDGs Report, 2018).

According to the 2018 Australian SDG Summit Report, SDGs are a great opportunity for Australia to address challenges such as population growth, future unemployment, climate change, environmental degradation, inequality and the decline of trust in government and business; as well as improving health and wellbeing in the country whilst fostering sustainability. Furthermore, the Report indicates Australia has not achieved many of the goals and targets, highlighting the need for action in i) biodiversity protection, ii) tackling climate change, iii) promoting industry transformation, iv) fighting inequality and v) promoting income growth, vi) debt, vii) housing affordability and viii) preventing environment degradation, in order to meet the 2030 targets.

Although it has been established that civil society, academia and businesses (ASDG Report 2018) have implemented action in Australia, better coordinating among sectors, increased funding and investment, support and incentivising the adoption of the SDGs among the community and businesses is still necessary.

The achievement of the SDGs by 2030 will depend on joint efforts between governments, civil society and business working together in a more unified, integrated framework. The aspirational aspects of the SDGs, the issues concerning their non-binding nature and implementation difficulties do not imply that the goals are not achievable or inefficient. Thus, the potential for a global governance through goals presents a great opportunity for governments to motivate private and public sectors to take action towards achieving the current sustainability agenda.

Admittedly, there is still a lack of alternatives in global governance to address the challenges faced by a changing environment in an ever-changing planet. Yet, in this sense, the United Nations developed the P4G a global sustainable growth accelerator program in 2017 to “catalyse solutions for inclusive, sustainable economic growth” (UN, 2017). As can be seen, the future of the SDGs will depend on international coordinated efforts towards sustainable development.


  • Allen, C., Metternicht, G. and Wiedmann, T., 2017. An iterative framework for national scenario modelling for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainable Development, 25(5), pp.372-385.
  • Biermann, F., Kanie, N. and Kim, R.E., 2017. Global governance by goal-setting: the novel approach of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 26, pp.26-31.
  • Colglazier, W., 2015. Sustainable development agenda: 2030. Science, 349(6252), pp.1048-1050.
  • Costanza, R., Fioramonti, L. and Kubiszewski, I., 2016. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the dynamics of well-being. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14(2), pp.59-59.
  • Disley, Y.P., 2013. Sustainable development goals for people and planet, Nature, 495, p.21.Fleming, A., Wise, R.M., Hansen, H. and Sams, L., 2017. The sustainable development goals: A case study. Marine Policy, 86, pp.94-103
  • Freistein, K. and Mahlert, B., 2016. The potential for tackling inequality in the Sustainable Development Goals. Third World Quarterly, 37(12), pp.2139-2155.
  • Griggs, D., M. Stafford Smith, K. Rockström, M. C. Öhman, O. Gaffney, G. Glasner, N. Kanie, I. Noble, W. Steffen, and P. Shyamsundar. 2014. An integrated framework for sustainable development goals. Ecology and Society 19(4): 49.
  • Hajer, M., Nilsson, M., Raworth, K., Bakker, P., Berkhout, F., De Boer, Y., Rockström, J., Ludwig, K. and Kok, M., 2015. Beyond cockpit-ism: Four insights to enhance the transformative potential of the sustainable development goals. Sustainability, 7(2), pp.1651-1660.
  • Harris, P., Riley, E., Dawson, A., Friel, S. and Lawson, K., 2018. “Stop talking around projects and talk about solutions”: Positioning health within infrastructure policy to achieve the sustainable development goals. Health Policy
  • Kopnina, H., 2018. Teaching sustainable development goals in The Netherlands: a critical approach. Environmental education research, 24(9), pp.1268-1283.
  • Kloke-Lesch, A., 2015. The G20 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): reflections on future roles and tasks. Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies (ed.), G20 and global governance: blue book of G20 Think Tank, 2016, pp.55-71.
  • Loewe, M., 2012. Post 2015: How to reconcile the millennium development goals (MDGs) and the sustainable development goals (SDGs)?
  • Pogge, T. and Sengupta, M., 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) as drafted: Nice idea, poor execution. Wash. Int’l LJ, 24, p.571.
  • Sachs, J.D., 2012. From millennium development goals to sustainable development goals. The Lancet, 379(9832), pp.2206-2211.
  • Young O., Conceptualization: goal-setting as a strategy for earth system governance, 2017, ‘Governing Through Goals: Sustainable Development Goals as Governance Innovation’. Edited by Kanie N, Biermann F. MIT Press.
  • Magdalena Bexell & Kristina Jönson (2017) ‘Responsibility and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Forum for Development Studies, 44:1, 13-29, DOI: 10.1080/08039410.2016.1252424
  • Sakiko Fukuda-Parr 2014, Global Goals as a Policy Tool: Intended and Unintended Consequences inJournal of Human Development and Capabilities 15(2-3):118-131 · April 2014 with 135 Reads DOI: 10.1080/19452829.2014.910180
  • Stafford-Smith, M., Griggs, D., Gaffney, O., Ullah, F., Reyers, B., Kanie, N., Stigson, B., Shrivastava, P., Leach, M. and O’Connell, D., 2017. Integration: the key to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability Science, 12(6), pp.911-919.
  • Spijkers, O., 2018. Intergenerational equity and the sustainable development goals. Sustainability, 10(11), p.3836.
  • Wackernagel, M., Hanscom, L. and Lin, D., 2017. Making the sustainable development goals consistent with sustainability. Frontiers in Energy Research, 5, p.18.


Recommended websites

Join our mailing list

Receive event updates and sustainability education information.