Advancing the SDGs: Japan's universities lead the way

By Christine Dugay 23 June 2015

The Tokyo Institute of Technology main campus in Ōokayama, Japan. Tokyo Tech is one of the Japanese universities participating in Project On Sustainability Transformation beyond 2015, which is funded by Japan's Ministry of the Environment. Photo by: See Tatt Yeo / CC BY-NC-ND

With the Millennium Development Goals formally ending this year and as an outcome of the 2012 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20, researchers, experts and policymakers are in a final sprint to identify goals that would shape the work of the aid community to achieve the future we want.

Expectations are high that Rio+20’s emphasis on sustainability will result in policies and programming that meet the triple bottom line: economic growth, social development and environmental protection. The idea is simple: Countries should pursue socio-economic growth while safeguarding the environment to ensure sustainable development. In practice, however, trade-offs arise due to the diversity of challenges, stakeholders and interests. Often development needs win out over environmental concerns, prompting some experts to argue that stamping out poverty and protecting the Earth’s life support system must be twin priorities for the SDGs.

Finding that balance between the competing demands of growth and environmental protection is at the crux of sustainable development — a challenge Japan’s universities took on through the Project On Sustainability Transformation beyond 2015, or simply POST2015. The three-year research project (2013-2015) aims to contribute to setting the post-2015 agenda by advancing SDGs that link poverty reduction with environmental protection, and proposing policies and frameworks for action. POST2015 seeks to propose goals, specific targets and frameworks for governance by integrating findings from studies, which utilize human development and environmental sustainability paradigms.

Led by Norichika Kanie of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, POST2015 came up with six policy briefs ranging from addressing the double burden of malnutrition to proposing a multilayered approach to Earth system governance:

“Earth System Challenges and a Multilayered Approach for Sustainable Development Goals” discusses the need for goals and targets at different levels of governance — i.e., global, regional, national and local — to ensure the protection of the Earth’s life support systems. These include the atmosphere, oceans, waterways, forests, ice sheets and biodiversity.

“Linking Education and Water in Sustainable Development Goals” suggests addressing water-related sustainability challenges by improving “water literacy” worldwide. The brief’s authors believe that knowledge about proper water use and management can be achieved through educational or training programs and by developing basic literacy competencies.

“Integrating Governance into the Sustainable Development Goals” touches on the three aspects of governance that need to be considered when framing the SDGs. These are good governance (the processes of decision-making and their institutional foundations), effective governance (the capacity of countries to pursue sustainable development), and equitable governance (distributive outcomes).

“Coherent Governance, the U.N. and the SDGs” explores governance issues related to the SDGs and tackles opportunities for creating a coherent governance system. One such opportunity is how the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development can serve as lead “orchestrator of orchestrators,” but will require high-level participation, innovative modalities for North-South dialogue, and links with intermediaries inside and outside of the U.N. system.

“Sustainable Development Goals and Inclusive Development” evaluates the proposed SDGs and targets drafted by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals against criteria for inclusive development. The brief recommends developing context-relevant targets and indicators, which require exceptional steering and leadership to ensure their successful implementation.

“Ending the Double Burden of Malnutrition: Addressing the Food and Health Nexus in the Sustainable Development Goals” tackles how improved economic conditions can lead to higher obesity risk and suggests that the SDGs address this by linking targets and indicators with the delivery of educational programs to boost health literacy globally. Further, to end the “double burden” of malnutrition — undernourishment and obesity — interventions should focus more on eliminating food disparity.

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment set aside roughly 200 million yen ($1.6 million) per year for the project. POST2015 is conducted through partnerships among researchers and experts from several Japanese universities and research institutions, including Japanese government ministries, the Institute of Global Environmental Strategies, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability. Participating Japanese universities are the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Kansai University, Keio University, Kyoto University, Nagasaki University, Ritsumeikan University, The University of Tokyo and Tohoku University.

Condensed and republished with permission from The International Development Journal, a leading monthly journal in Japanese focusing on international development.

About the author

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Christine Dugay

Christine is a senior analyst under the Surveys and Advisory Services team of Devex. A skilled researcher, she contributes to and/or leads custom research projects and surveys commissioned by leading companies and development institutions. Christine has a professional certificate in political economy and a master’s degree in Japanese studies, and is a fellow of the Japan Foundation.


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