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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge


Thomas Cernev

A systems analysis of the sustainable development goals: Risk, tipping points, and critical dependencies

The Sustainable Development Goals, consisting of 169 targets across 17 goals, implemented by the United Nations in 2015 to be completed in 2030 are a call for the global community to not only end poverty but to become more sustainable. It is acknowledged that there are extensive interlinkages between the goals, however, the nature of these is largely unknown. To ensure that the goals are achieved to the highest possible level, it is necessary to know what ones foster the linkages and are the most important in the system. Furthermore, the impact of the non-achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is largely unknown in terms of how it exposes humanity to global catastrophic risk and existential risk. In order to address these issues, a systems analysis is completed.

To address these problems, a systems analysis for the Sustainable Development Goals has been undertaken, to determine system interdependencies, foundational Sustainable Development Goals and the possibility of global catastrophic risk, existential risk, and tipping points arising from the system in the event of non-achievement. It is evident from the systems analysis that the Sustainable Development Goals are interdependent through a series of reinforcing and balancing loops. Foundational loops have been identified, that through their reinforcing nature, and path in the system have a critical effect on the evolution of the system over time. Similarly, foundational Sustainable Development Goals are identified, which together with the foundational loops should be prioritised to ensure the largest amount of progress to be made by the 2030 deadline. The foundational Sustainable Development Goals are: Good Health and Well-being, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Inequality (Reduced Inequalities), Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Climate Action. The emergence of global catastrophic risk, existential risk, and tipping points from the system is assessed, with linkages to the non-achievement of certain Sustainable Development Goals uncovered. To mitigate this risk, leverage points within the system are identified which include the goals: Climate Action, Good Health and Well-being, Zero Hunger, and Responsible Consumption and Production, together with intermediate factors. These results and the ensuing discussions answer the dissertation research questions and provide three recommendations for future action: to prioritise the foundational reinforcing feedback loops, the foundational Sustainable Development Goals, and the leverage points.