By Jay Landers

In 2015, the leaders of 193 nations adopted a group of 17 goals aimed at improving worldwide economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. Known as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the aspirational milestones are supposed to be met by 2030. However, a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine maintains that sufficient progress toward meeting the goals has not occurred and suggests actions to be taken by a range of governmental and nongovernmental entities to accelerate such efforts.

Lofty goals

Among the goals that specifically involve the civil engineering profession, the SDGs include the development of safe drinking water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, resilient infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, and efforts to address climate change.

The SDGs also call for eliminating poverty and hunger, ensuring healthy lives and quality education, achieving gender equality, ensuring decent work and economic growth, reducing inequalities within and among countries, ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, conserving and sustainably using the oceans and other marine bodies, restoring and sustainably managing terrestrial ecosystems, and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.

For its part, ASCE voiced its support for the SDGs in July 2019, when the Society’s Board of Direction adopted ASCE Policy Statement 517 — United Nations' sustainable development goals.

ASCE “supports implementation of the civil engineering aspects” of the SDGs, according to the policy statement. “By helping meet the SDGs the engineering profession contributes to a world where all people have access to the knowledge and resources with which to meet their basic human needs and promote sustainable development in such areas as water supply and sanitation, food production and processing, housing and construction, energy, transportation and communication, income generation, and employment creation.”

Challenges to progress

Events of the past few years have not helped the pursuit of progress toward the SDGs, according to the late November 2022 report, Operationalizing Sustainable Development to Benefit People and the Planet. “The COVID-19 pandemic and overlapping global crises, including geopolitical conflict and climate change, have made achievement of the (SDGs) more challenging,” the report states.

Initiated by the National Academies in February 2022, the report was prepared by the Committee on Operationalizing Sustainable Development. The committee was co-chaired by E. William Colglazier, Ph.D., the editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy and a senior scholar for the Center for Science Diplomacy within the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Cherry Murray, Ph.D., a professor of physics and the deputy director for research at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2.

Directed mainly toward a U.S. audience but with recommendations that could be implemented in other countries, the report identifies research priorities and potential steps to jump-start efforts to attain the SDGs. “We hope our recommendations can help inform the adoption of evidence-based actions that can move progress forward at the global and local levels,” Murray said, in a Nov. 29 news release issued by the National Academies.

More study of urbanization needed

Research priorities identified in the report focus on:

  • Urbanization.
  • Decarbonization.
  • Science, technology, and innovation for the SDGs.
  • Science and peace.
  • Education and capacity building.
  • Localization of the SDGs and indigenous knowledge.
  • Food systems.
  • Financing to achieve the SDGs.

Within the context of urbanization, the committee emphasized the importance of “local-scale sustainability transformations,” according to the report. “It is important to assess what kinds of big data are needed from cities to monitor SDG transitions along environmental, social, and economic considerations and to demonstrate the multiple benefits of sustainable urbanization.”

To this end, the report suggests several data-related research priorities. For example, it calls on researchers to “improve data collection and reporting at the local level, including of disaggregated and city-level data, as well as create open data hubs and portals to capture information from local agencies and community-generated data sets.”

Also necessary is an understanding of the “types of data needed from cities to monitor SDG transitions along environmental, social, and economic considerations,” the report states. “The first step would be to identify the types of data that are missing. The second step would be to determine how to collect these data across multiple locations.”

Decarbonization is key

The committee identifies decarbonization as central to efforts to achieve the SDGs. “A fundamental energy-systems transformation would help to address health, climate, and other challenges facing humanity, and would especially benefit individuals without access to affordable and clean energy services,” the report states.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will also be needed, according to the report. Among the research priorities associated with decarbonization, the committee calls for examinations of “technologies that enable large-scale deployment of carbon capture, utilization, and storage, with an emphasis on durability and scale-up.”

Along these lines, the committee also highlights the need for more research regarding “fundamental science for ocean- and nature-based carbon dioxide removal, including chemical pathways, microbiome variability and durability of soil sequestration, forest and ocean-based proposals, and suitable reservoirs for underground or deep sea storage,” according to the report.

The report calls on governments, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to “promote decarbonization in agriculture, industry, and energy production, including by building carbon-neutral cities, strengthening climate education and engagement, and encouraging low-carbon lifestyles for mobility, housing, and consumption.”

Engineers and the SDGs

The National Academies report is a “commendable attempt to provide clear direction by laying out implementable approaches for a wide range of stakeholders,” says Fiona Cousins, P.E., the Americas Region chair at Arup, a leading global sustainable development consultancy.

Ultimately, the report indicates “there is a lot to be done,” Cousins says. “In much of the world, including the U.S., there is a disconnect between what needs to be done, the speed at which we need to act, and the drivers that will make the change,” she notes. “Some of these drivers will be regulations, policies, incentives, and subsidies. Some of them will be the attitudes and commitments of individuals, organizations, institutions, and corporations.”

If the SDGs are to be achieved by 2030, action is not only needed, “we need to accelerate it,” Cousins says.

“In many cases, the right actions are well understood, and the action needed now is to align all the interests so that we can move faster,” she says. “In other cases, the actions are not so clear: The best changes will arise where an individual or group understands both their own ‘problem’ — what they are doing every day — and the impact of climate change on that ‘problem’ so well that they can find ways to innovate and to improve the outcome.”

In either case, “we need people to work together,” Cousins says. “Making change at this scale needs everyone — engineers, communities, policymakers, designers, and more — because the work to be done is diffuse, crosses silos of expertise, and the benefits don’t all accrue to the people making the decisions in the process.”

Civil engineers, in particular, have an opportunity and obligation to contribute to efforts to achieve the SDGs, Cousins says.

“Engineers can contribute in many ways and have a responsibility both to leverage their knowledge and tools and to collaborate with others,” she notes. “It’s time for engineers to put our tools and expertise to use to shape a more sustainable and resilient world.”


This article first appeared in Civil Engineering Online.

Read more about civil engineers' efforts to advance the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals in the ASCE library.