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Sustainable Development Goals

People, planet, and prosperity...

These three components underpin the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an international plan signed by all United Nations (U.N.) member states in 2015. This plan outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), with 169 underlying targets. The plan was developed by a U.N. working group, comprised of representatives from 70 countries, who gathered information and engaged with global communities to determine what the SDGs should include.

Earth observation (EO) data inform our daily lives, providing critical information to help in our understanding of the interconnectedness of people, the planet, and prosperity. EO data are used in tracking biodiversity, assessing the impact of disasters, managing natural resources, observing land use changes, and mitigating climate change. The Group on Earth Observations (GEO), of which NASA is a partner, has developed a coordinated and consistent set of observations that can be used in assessing several of the SDGs.

The vision of the SDG framework encourages every country to assume responsibility for planning and providing better outcomes for future generations, leaving no one behind. Participating countries are tasked with developing sustainable solutions for each goal by the year 2030; progress toward meeting these goals is measured by 230 different indicators. The plan promotes the triple bottom line concept of sustainability: every solution must consider and account for social justice, a healthy environment, and economic viability.

Each goal of the SDG framework serves as an aspiration, what U.N. member countries hope to ideally achieve in the future. Each goal has targets to help in achieving the ultimate goal, and each target has several indicators for measuring progress. The 17 goals within the framework are:

17 goals within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework
  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-Being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace and Justice
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

The underlying principle of the SDG Framework is that a country is not measured as an aggregate or whole. Instead, all communities, including sub-communities of indigenous and historically marginalized populations, must meet SDG goals to ensure that no one gets “left behind.” For example, a single nation considered as an aggregate might meet many of the targets. If one considers demographic and place-based data, however, there may be sub-populations in that nation that are suffering from social, environmental, and economic injustices. These injustices include such factors as poverty, hunger, gender inequality, land degradation, and unhealthy air and water quality. A sustainable solution for all communities is needed.

The SDG framework ensures that:

  • the goals apply to all communities;
  • the three components of sustainability are at the heart of every solution;
  • there is a government-wide approach to policy with coherence between policies from each government entity;
  • there is inclusiveness and participation from all; and
  • all goals, targets, and indicators are interconnected and thereby indivisible.

How Earth Observations Support Sustainability Solutions

Earth observation data are an essential source of information in the implementation of solutions and in monitoring progress. Remote sensing has a unique role to play in tracking the progress of the SDGs; Earth observations (from satellite, airborne, and in-situ sensors) provide consistent and continuous information on the state of the atmosphere, ocean, ecosystems, natural resources, the urban environment, etc., and their change over time. Remote sensing data, provided by NASA and many other Earth-observing agencies, are free and open access for all data users, which reduces the cost of monitoring the SDGs and provides developing countries a means to acquire and utilize these data for other policy-making purposes. The remote sensing data:

  • Provide data continuity and a long time series: many satellites pass over the same spot on Earth every one-two days and data have been collected over increasingly long periods of time, from the 1970s to the present. This consistency allows for the establishment of trends and baselines for monitoring progress in meeting targets.
  • Contain a wide diversity of measurements: integrating different types of satellite and/or airborne measurements enables one to get a more holistic view of an area or situation.
  • Supplement ground-based data: ground-based data are more comprehensive on a local scale. However, airborne or satellite data are far more extensive, with millions of measurements over regional and global scales, providing more complete spatial coverage.

Many of NASA's current missions collect data that can inform the design and development of solutions, as well as aid in tracking progress toward meeting each indicator. Example use cases are provided below.

Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation

Use Case — Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Target 6.4: By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.

NASA instruments collect data that can be used to aid in the assessment of water availability from precipitation rate, snow water equivalent, soil moisture, and groundwater. Snow water equivalent is analogous to melting a volume of snow and measuring the depth of the resulting pool of water. Snow water equivalent measurements are useful for assessing both the potential surface runoff when the snow melts and the water availability for regions in lower elevations. Groundwater storage percentiles (obtained from NASA data) serve as a drought indicator and are useful in regional studies to determine general trends in groundwater storage. The Agriculture and Water Resources Data Pathfinder provides direct access to many of these datasets.

Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land

Use Case – Goal 15: Life on Land
Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Target 15.2: By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally

NASA instruments can be used to track tree cover extent, canopy height, and forest loss/gain over time. Vegetation indices (like the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or NDVI) measure the amount of green vegetation over a given area and can be used to assess vegetation health. Surface reflectance data provide information on the location and extent of forests, including degradation through deforestation and urbanization. High-resolution laser-ranging observations provide data on forest canopy height, vertical canopy structure, and surface elevation. With measurements such as these, coupled with field-based data, countries can assess current land cover and how land cover is changing, directly addressing the indicators for target 15.2. The Biological Diversity and Ecological Forecasting Data Pathfinder provides direct access to many of these datasets.

For more information on datasets that are applicable to the SDG Framework, view the table below or browse the thematic Data Pathfinders. Pathfinder themes include Agriculture and Water Resources, Biological Diversity and Ecological Forecasting, Disasters, Health and Air Quality, Water Quality, and Wildfires.

Geospatial information and Earth observations supporting official statistics in monitoring the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (March, 2016).

Geospatial information and Earth observations supporting official statistics in monitoring the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (March, 2016). Credit: Group on Earth Observations


Published June 26, 2020

Page Last Updated: Jun 26, 2020 at 11:49 AM EDT