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Why they matter

A Q&A with Dr. Mark Stoddart on UN sustainable development goals


By Jeff Green

One of three special stories in the Gazette recognizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Global Goals Week, Sept. 16–25. Read them all by following the Related Content links below.

They’re a roadmap for our future.

From ending poverty to creating sustainable cities and communities to combating climate change, the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a shared blueprint for countries to make our world a better place.

The goals were first adopted by United Nations member states in 2015. Since then, businesses, governments, municipalities and post-secondary institutions such as Memorial University have been demonstrating their commitment to meeting these goals.

Earlier this year, Memorial was recognized internationally for its commitment and work to making a positive impact here at home and beyond.

It ranked among the top 101-200 global universities as part of 2022’s Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which are the only assessment measuring universities’ contributions to the SDGs.

The Gazette spoke with Dr. Mark Stoddart, professor and acting head, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, to learn more about the SDGs, why they matter and how his own research relates to the goals.

JG: Why are the SDGs important?

MS: They’re important for two particular reasons: first, by articulating a more concrete set of goals and related targets, the SDGs create a common vocabulary for translating broad notions of sustainability into the realities of policy and practice.

Second, the earlier millennium development goals, which the SDGs replace, were largely focused on developing countries and the global south.

“The upside of the SDGs is they offer a common global framework or common vocabulary for sustainability.”

The SDGs make it clear that these goals — and responsibility for achieving equitable sustainability — are applicable for all countries.

 JG: What do you see as the main challenges for countries such as Canada in achieving the SDGs?

MS: The biggest challenge is not to treat the 17 goals as discrete or siloed from each other. There’s been a lot of research done looking at trade-offs across goals, or synergies among the goals.

If we see the 17 goals as a holistic agenda for social-environmental change, we should be pursuing policies and actions that maximize the synergies and co-benefits across goals, while minimizing the trade-offs.

To take a concrete Newfoundland and Labrador-based example, the province has been promoting further offshore oil exploration and development through a discourse that our oil is lower carbon intensity at the extraction and production end.

As such, one could argue that this would positively contribute to SDG No. 7, Affordable and Clean Energy.

“There is a need to translate the SDGs in ways that are nationally or regionally relevant and meaningful.”

However, this line of thinking doesn’t fully consider the potential negative impacts on ocean environments, SDG No. 14, Life Below Water, or downstream carbon emissions of burning this oil, SDG No. 13, Climate Action.

A more holistic approach to co-benefits and synergies across the SDGs might lead to different forms of planning and development related to energy and our ocean environment.

The other major challenge is around how the SDGs get interpreted as meaningful, or actionable, and implemented in the particular national, regional or local contexts of policy and practice.

The upside of the SDGs is they offer a common global framework or common vocabulary for sustainability. But at the same time, the SDGs ultimately need to be implemented in particular policy and practice settings.

As such, there is a need to translate the SDGs in ways that are nationally or regionally relevant and meaningful.

JG: How does your research tie into the goals?

MS: I’ve been working with the Memorial team on the project, Sustainable Island Futures.

A major focus of this project is on how various stakeholders and publics, representing government, business, academia, civil society and students/youth, interpret the SDGs as relevant and meaningful for our region.

I’ll be presenting results on a panel on the topic of Sustainable Northern Island Futures: Iceland, Newfoundland and Labrador and Beyond at next month’s Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Wearing a dark-coloured shirt, grey pants and glasses, Dr. Mark Stoddart stands in front a brick wall with his hands in his pocket.
Dr. Mark Stoddart
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

JG: What are you learning from this work?

MS: First, our research participants tend to emphasize the economic-oriented SDGs as the most meaningful for the region.

However, economically oriented SDGs are viewed as compatible and consistent with a broad range of SDGs.

In other words, economic sustainability is not seen as a trade-off with other dimensions, but as connected with other dimensions of sustainability.

Second, participants tend to view the provincial government as the most salient actor with the capacity to implement sustainability policy and practice for the region.

However, despite the perceived importance of the provincial government, participants assess its performance poorly in relation to implementing the SDGs — often noting that any progress by the provincial government towards the SDGs is incidental, rather than purposive and directed by the SDGs as a framework.

JG: From your perspective, how is Memorial doing in responding to the SDGs?

MS: If you look at the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, we appear to be doing particularly well on SDG No. 9: Industry Innovation and Infrastructure; SDG No. 14: Life Below Water; and SDG No. 17: Partnerships for the Goals.

This makes sense given our focus and performance on oceans-related research and also on community engagement. However, there are pressing needs for provincially relevant research where Memorial could devote greater research attention.

“The SDGs are a very useful common vocabulary for how we can translate the often vague notion of sustainable development into policy and practice.”

For example, SDG No. 6: Clean Water and Sanitation is an ongoing issue in many of our rural communities. Work oriented around SDG No. 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions is also important, given ongoing issues with transparency and accountability in the provincial political sphere, as evidenced by the Muskrat Falls boondoggle.

Much more could also be done on how to reconcile SDG No. 13: Climate Action with the SDGs related to industry innovation and energy development.

JG: What would you say to someone to encourage them to learn more about the importance of the SDGs?

MS: If we see the SDGs as mutually reinforcing or interdependent, rather than as discrete, they can serve as a useful aspirational framework for translating environmental sustainability and social equality into policy and practice.

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