The environment is central to achieving the UN Global Goals, the first joint Rockefeller Foundation-NERC-ESRC report finds

18 July 2017

A clear understanding of the multiple ways we, as humans, interact with and depend on the environment is essential to achieving the United Nation's 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

The UN's 17 Global Goals on Sustainable Development

The United Nation's 17 Global Goals on Sustainable Development

That's the conclusion of a newly published report by the University of Sussex, commissioned by NERC, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC). The findings are expected to provide a basis for prioritising the most appropriate research and innovation necessary to fulfil the ambitious Global Goals in an integrated and systematic way.

In September 2015, 193 world leaders agreed to the Global Goals, with the aim of ending extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030.

The new report, UN Global Goals: Mapping the Human-Environment Landscape, finds that the resilience of our ecosystems, the security of natural resources and the stability of Earth's life-support systems are essential for human response and adaptation to the global changes we face, and for any prospect of sustainable development. The report demonstrates that environment-human interactions underpin each of the Global Goals, and that understanding how these interactions apply across the goals is critical to achieving them.

Indeed, this interaction is complex and fraught with paradox. While the environment provides resources like fresh water and clean air, we are also faced with damaging storms and disease. Similarly, while humans protect ecosystems by establishing national parks and restoring degraded landscapes, we are also responsible for species extinction, soil degradation and pollution of our natural environment.

The report is the first publication of Towards a Sustainable Earth, an initiative spearheaded by the three organisations, which was founded on the core idea that an improved human-environment relationship is central to sustainable development under the Global Goals. This ambitious programme aims to prioritise research and innovation for sustainable, resilient human development, and mobilise resources and actions with the recognition that responsible management of the planet is a core requirement for advancing the global economy and improving the wellbeing of humanity.

However, the complex interdependencies, co-benefits, and trade-offs across the environment-human interactions of the goals are not well understood. To further that understanding, NERC, ESRC and The Rockefeller Foundation commissioned the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme at the University of Sussex and UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre to conduct an analysis of these relationships, the findings of which are presented in this report.

Work in this area has previously highlighted how environmental concerns underpin sustainable development. But this report is the first to focus specifically on environment-human interactions and to show how they are vital to achieving all of the Global Goals. By combining ten years' worth of research evidence, innovations and policies relating to environment-human interactions, the report explores the specific relevance of these interactions for each individual goal. In addition, the report analyses the relationships across the goals, identifying 20 connections where these interactions have the most influence and are likely to be most critical to meeting those targets.

NERC's Director of Research & Innovation, Professor Tim Wheeler, said:

The inspiration for the Towards a Sustainable Earth initiative is that the environment-human relationship must be central to our sustainable development solutions, recognising that maintaining the resilience of our ecosystems, the security of our natural resources and the stability of Earth's life-support systems is necessary for humans to thrive. I'm pleased to see that this report recognises the environment is fundamental to helping us fulfil the UN Global Goals. I look forward to using it to develop the most appropriate research and innovation necessary to achieve this.

Managing Director for Ecosystems at The Rockefeller Foundation, Dr Fred Boltz, said:

We cannot address our complex development challenges without the great advances in science and technology that have long fuelled human progress. The UN Global Goals are ambitious yet achieving them will be within reach if we ask the right questions and make informed choices as we deploy our resources to solve them. This report gets us closer to both.

Chief Executive of ESRC, Professor Jane Elliott, said:

ESRC welcomes the publication of this report, which highlights the importance of human-environment interactions in achieving a sustainable future. We hope that the report will inform novel interdisciplinary research and innovation through the Towards a Sustainable Earth initiative that will contribute to achieving the UN Global Goals.

This report and the environment-human interactions it identifies will help inform the efforts of Towards a Sustainable Earth to identify research and innovation priorities and ultimately help realise the Global Goals. Recognising the critical need for a committed global response, it is the hope of The Rockefeller Foundation, NERC and ESRC that this report will be used by other research groups, funders, business and industry, and policymakers around the world who are interested in implementing effective approaches to this critical effort.

It has already been welcomed by the strategic advisory group of the Global Challenges Research Fund, the next major call of which will have a central focus on interactions between research and innovation challenges in developing countries, in line with the premise of this report.

Further information

Tamera Jones
NERC media office
01793 411561


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

2. ESRC is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK's future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the government.

3. The Sussex Sustainability Research Programme was established by the University of Sussex in collaboration with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). It aims to support the sustainability of life on Earth through rigorous interdisciplinary research that informs policy and stimulates action. UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the specialist biodiversity centre of UN Environment, is a collaboration between UN Environment and World Conservation Monitoring Centre, a UK non-profit organisation. Working with partners worldwide, UNEP-WCMC collates, manages, analyses and synthesises data on biodiversity and ecosystem services to inform decision making.