National SDG targets require political decisions based on scientific knowledge on global limits, distributive fairness and footprints


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on governments to translate the global ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national targets and policies. However, the 2030 agenda is unclear about the level of global environmental change that would need to be avoided, and provides little guidance on how such a translation should be conducted. In a study focused on translating the environmental SDGs for the Netherlands, PBL concludes that setting national policy targets requires normative, political decisions about global limits, distributive fairness and national responsibility. Furthermore, based on scientific insights into planetary boundaries, fair and equitable distribution and national footprints, the Netherlands is not living within its safe operating space.

This is concluded by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in its report Towards a safe operating space for the Netherlands. In this study, PBL analyses translation steps and normative choices that are required to translate the global ambition of environment-related SDG targets into national policy targets, and the role scientific knowledge can play. The outcomes of the study are relevant in the context of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) currently taking place in New York and where several environment-related SDGs are being reviewed and discussed.

Planetary boundaries can support global target setting for the SDGs

Many SDG targets that address global environmental challenges are phrased in non-quantitative terms (e.g. ‘significantly reduce’) and/or are defined at the global level. For climate change, the Paris Agreement includes a globally agreed target (holding the increase in global temperature to well below 2 °C). This is not the case for many other global environmental challenges. Here, the so-called Planetary Boundaries Framework can support global target setting. Based on Earth system science, the framework proposes maximum levels of global environmental change for nine critical Earth system processes, including climate change, nutrient pollution and biodiversity loss. Together, they define a global ‘safe operating space’ for human development. While planetary boundaries are not mentioned explicitly in the 2030 Agenda, all nine are addressed, either as the focus of a specific SDG or by being included in specific targets.

Creating a national safe operating space

The idea of allocating resource rights or reduction targets to countries is not new. In climate change negotiations and the literature, many proposals for fair and equitable sharing of global emission reductions have been proposed and analysed. These so-called allocation approaches are based on a range of equity principles, for example equality (all people have equal rights to the ecological space) or capability (the greater the capacity to act or pay, the greater the share in global mitigation). Translating global reduction targets to national levels essentially subdivides the global safe operating space.  Approaches that allow higher environmental pressures for one country, inevitably allow less for other countries. For example, basing a country’s reduction effort on its relative wealth (i.e. per capita income) leads to a much lower share for the Netherlands than for developing countries. Such insights can help define national targets in line with SDG ambitions, i.e. national fair shares.

The Netherlands is not living within its safe operating space

Dutch environmental footprints per capita (e.g. environmental pressures and impacts along the whole value chain related to national consumption, including imports) are generally larger than the EU average and much larger than the global average. A large share of the environmental pressures and their impact beyond national borders relates to agriculture in other countries, including cropland use, nutrient pollution and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, while most environmental footprints have remained constant since 1995, the share abroad has increased, which indicates an externalisation of environmental pressure. Overall, under a range of allocation approaches, Dutch environmental footprints are larger than most translated planetary boundaries, from which may be concluded that the Netherlands is not living within its safe operating space. Footprint indicators should be considered in a national SDG indicator set to monitor the global environmental pressures linked to Dutch consumption.

Dialogue and cooperation between scientists and policymakers

Setting national policy targets in line with global SDG ambitions involves normative political decisions with respect to global limits, distributive fairness and national responsibility. Science can help setting global quantitative targets by providing insights into societal risks of various levels of global environmental change. Furthermore, science can help with translating these targets into national targets and policies, by systematically analysing the implications of alternative allocation approaches based on various interpretations of fair and equitable distribution. Subsequent steps require more dialogue and closer cooperation between scientists and policymakers.