Towards Sustainability: Making Systems Transformations to Realize Agenda 2030

Towards Sustainability (blog by Eeva Furman on the EPL website; Environmental Policy and Law) (photo credit: Caleb Riston)

14 October 2020 | Helsinki, Finland – The COVID-19 crisis has brought people and societies to their knees, no matter if rich or poor. Universal sustainability transformations have potential to be the way out of this vicious circle. This post highlights the importance of key players taking an active role and ownership in the transformation of sustainability pathways and how vital it is that this is carried out in an integrated manner.

The COVID-19 crisis is a textbook example of an unsustainable societal system

[Author: Eeva Furman, Finnish Environment Institute] 

Helsinki, Finland – The COVID-19 crisis has brought people and societies to their knees, no matter if rich or poor. Universal sustainability transformations have potential to be the way out of this vicious circle. This post highlights the importance of key players taking an active role and ownership in the transformation of sustainability pathways and how vital it is that this is carried out in an integrated manner.

Towards Sustainability (Eeva Furman blog on the EPL website; Environmental Policy and Law)


In the shadow of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, working under the auspices of Economic and Social Council, was held 14–16 July 2020. Its theme was "Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development." The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) serves as the core UN platform to follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The 2020 HLPF especially reflected upon “how the international community can respond to the pandemic in a way that puts us back on track to achieve the SDG.”

Thus, if the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the Agenda 2030 (adopted by the UN General Assembly resolution 70/1 on 25 September 2015) are to be met, human societies need to take a new stand for implementing this plan of action – without delay. The negative trends in inequalities, biodiversity loss, climate change, and waste problem hamper progress of the entire Agenda 2030. 


Science–Policy Interface

Almost 5 years after the adoption of Agenda 2030, an Independent Group of Scientists – 15 in all (myself included) – wrote the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), prior to the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in 2019, that seeks to put in place a perspective on science–policy interface at the HLPF. Evaluating the progress of implementation of the SDGs 2030, the GSDR entitled “The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development” (PDF), suggests that human well-being and eradicating poverty for the 8.5 billion – expected to increase to 10 billion – people on Earth are possible if there are fundamental and urgent changes in the ”relationship between people and nature, and a significant reduction in social and gender inequalities between and inside countries,” according to the GDSR press release (PDF) issued in September 2019. Due to the global inter-connectedness in issues (GSDR 2019, Box 1-2, p.6) [1], geography and stakeholder, the individual SDGs are not to be reached without taking a holistic approach to the Agenda which means not putting emphasis on SDGs individually but looking at their linkages and the systems in which they all perform. 

Figure below source: Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 (p.6)

Transforming Systems

The GSDR 2019 calls upon all the actors to take an active role and ownership in the transformation of six societal systems which are most crucial for moving towards sustainable development in every country in the world. In fact, sustainability pathways to all UN SDGs can be seen in all the key systems that run the societies across the world: in economic processes, in food chains and eating behavior, in energy services, in models of urbanization, and the way in which global environmental commons are managed and in the groundings of human wellbeing and opportunities in life.

In order to turn these unsustainable systems to operate sustainably, we need the best efforts in an integrated way. Governance, finance and business, individual behavior and collective action – as well as science and technology – need to work in an cohesive manner and boost each other in order to turn towards sustainability paths. The GSDR 2019 offers a concrete framework for this (GSDR 2019, Figure 2-2, p.29) [1]. Here various societal actors are taking the central role in systems transformation and in the SDG-implementation. This is a way of taking the important political goals given to us as a compass and transforming with them in real life where the navigation takes place. 

Who are the key players and what is the role of science? For instance, in the food system, its food chains, production and behavior patterns, content and impacts. It is not only connected to nutrition but also to health, poverty, water, nature, energy, climate change, education, infrastructure, consumption, and many other issues. It ties together all the SDGs, and thus offers to contribute to the entire Agenda 2030 framework. Each system also brings together various actors from businesses, local farmers, municipalities and nations, and communities as they have stakes in production, transforming, and use in different areas from local to global level. In fact an individual’s daily food system is linked with products and consumers from the other side of the planet.

Figure below source: Global Sustainable Developmental Report (p.29)

Sustainability Science

It appears, however, systems transformations are complicated. Any long-lasting and comprehensive changes require the inter-linkages between various activities, problems, and means to address them. Without this we end up in single solutions-model wherein one solution creates a new problem and continues the vicious circles. It is here that science can contribute in implementation of the SDGs through inter-linkages, development of alternative scenarios and bring about sustainable steps and paths (GSDR 2019, Figure 3-1, p.112) [1]. Ironically, science per se does not contribute to the systems transformation towards sustainability (as elucidated in Messerli et al. 2019) [2]. Therefore, it is not only the six mentioned societal systems that need to transform but the science system as a whole. It means that the entire science value change needs to be reconsidered and major changes to be made in institutions, strategies and practices of science-related organizations. 

Sustainability science is strongly raising its head and journals are receiving rising numbers of manuscripts that focus on theories and empirical analyses on transformative change instead of describing problems and painting ideal futures. International science funders are on the move and taking a key part in the discussions on how to drive sustainability with science. Institutions of higher education and science are going through major changes due to sustainability efforts and have platforms for learning from each other. While thinking of clients, the students and society, sustainability becomes a competition factor.  All actors, sectors and spheres do need to tailor the way they respond to their culture and the needs that arise from systems transformation towards sustainability, particularly focused on them. 

The science publishing sector is one of actors in the value chain that see potential and necessity in raising the sustainability aspect when discussing other changes now taking place in this business. The APE (Academic Publishing in Europe) of the publishing sector brings broadly together actors from different parts of the world, connected to this field. The messages from the GSDR 2019 report to publishers (Furman, 2020) [3] included issues of open access to journals and databases, funding mechanisms to sustainability science, promoting for meta-analyses and syntheses, paying attention to youth and policy makers and in particular, enhancing science capacity in the poor and developing countries. The messages described in the article give specific recommendations on ways how to implement these points and take them to the table of strategic planning, budgeting and decision making in the publishing sector and businesses involved. 

Figure below source: Global Sustainable Developmental Report (p.112)

Road Ahead

After the lapse of 5 years, there are still 10 years ahead to monitor progress, streamline processes, and coordinate work of different entities in the UN system and member states, including financial mechanisms so as to attain the desired milestone in 2030. Notwithstanding previous experience of the Millennium Development Goals, 2000–2015 (PDF), the global situation continues to remain grim in the first 20 years of this century.  Can we turn the entire developmental juggernaut into a sustainable mode?  All actors need to be involved, citizens, communities, businesses, finance, research, technology – as well as innovations and governance. The UN system needs to be sensitive and facilitate the member states to make SDGs 2030 happen and the member states need to share ownership of the process and tailor it with the UN instruments to fit their circumstances. 

The framework of six entry points to transformation and the four levers provide a good basis that now requires effective operationalization that draws together actors all the way from nation-level budgeting to everyday activities on local level, from strategic decisions in multinational companies to smallholder farmers yearly planning. It will require huge attitudinal changes to turn sustainable development as a mantra (cardinal goal) for all planning, budgeting, and decision making in every sector of the national economies. The first three quarters of 2020 have been consumed by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic at great cost of lives and livelihoods in all the continents. It presents us a big challenge to overcome this crisis and revitalize the global economy. The COVID-19 crisis has been a unique test for humankind for our secure, sustainable and just future.  Let us hope the pathway to SDGs 2030 can be resumed and hopefully realized in time.  The UN General Assembly, as plenary organ of the UN, needs to keep this under its gaze and duly provide political guidance to the member states.



1. Eloundou-Enyegue, P., Foli E.G., Furman E., Glassman A., Hernandez Licona G., Mee Kim E., Lutz W., Messerli P., Moatti J.-P., Murniningtyas R., Richardson K., Saidam M., Smith D., Kazimieras Stamåikis J., van Ypersele J.-P. (2019). Global Sustainable Development Report 2019: The future is now; science for achieving sustainable development (New York: Division for sustainable development knowledge platform, department of economic and social affairs, United Nations Secretariat Building, 2019). (link)

2. Furman, E. 2020. “The Big Leap: How to Move from What Is Agreed and Done to What Needs to Happen”. Information Services & Use (DOI: 10.3233/ISU-200077). (link)

3. Messerli, P., Kim, E. M., Lutz, W., Moatti, J.-P., Richardson, K., Saidam, M., Smith, D., Eloundou-Enyegue, P., Foli, E., Glassman, A., Hernandez Licona, G., Murniningtyas, E., Kazimieras Staniškis J., van Ypersele, J.-P. Furman, E. (2019). “Expansion of sustainability science needed for the SDGs”. Nature Sustainability (DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0394-z). (link)

About the Author

Eeva Furman is a professor at the Finnish Environment Institute and a member of the EPL Editorial Board. Being one of the Independent Group of Scientists who wrote the first ever Global Sustainability Report for the UN in 2019, Prof. Furman was thrown into various debates on global development and sustainability. She comments: “The COVID-19 crisis is a textbook example of an unsustainable societal system, which requires a systems transformation to reach a durable way of managing future pandemics. The world is messy and there is not a watertight solution – but forging a path to sustainability is possible.”

Eeva Furman quote