Tracking International Progress for a More Sustainable Future

May 2, 2014

United Nations Secretariat and General Assembly
Credit Jeffrey Zeldman / Creative Commons
It is nearly impossible to monitor how countries are performing on a number of high-priority environmental issues.

Next week, the United Nations’ Open Working Group will convene in New York to continue negotiating a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs -- focused on  issues such as gender equality, health, education, poverty, climate change, and biodiversity  -- are intended to drive social, economic, and environmental development on an international scale. They will also serve as a continuation of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015.

2015 Millennium Development Goals
Credit United Nations

Dr. Angel Hsu, of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, has attended several of the Open Working Group's SDG meetings. While she believes negotiators have successfully articulated the extent of these goals, she said one key factor has been missing from the discussion thus far: how to monitor the progress of the SDGs once they’re in place.

"To me," Hsu said, "it seems like the articulation of these SDGs is really meaningless if we don’t even have the data to track progress."

As project manager of Yale University's Environmental Performance Measurement program, Hsu said that data gaps have made it nearly impossible to monitor how countries are performing on a number of high-priority environmental issues. In order for that to change, she believes United Nations negotiators must start thinking about how to use newer, more creative monitoring practices to measure SDG progress, rather than relying on individual governments to collect and report all data.

NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite
Credit NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

"For some reason," Hsu said, "there are still these very entrenched lines in between sectors… that prevent the free flow and uptake of information."

In order to dissolve those lines, Hsu suggested negotiators consider ways to aggregate data from new sources like satellites, citizen science monitoring programs, private-sector companies, and third-party organizations.

Over the next few weeks, we'll take a closer look at some of these sources as part of a new mini-series on sustainability monitoring and data collection. Stay tuned to wnpr.org for more.