Goethe University: Environmental students from poorer regions rate the UN Sustainable Development Goals as more important

In 2015, the member states of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The core are 17 sustainability goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include Zero Hunger, Clean Water, Responsible Consumption and Life Below Water. The SDGs relate to all three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and ecological. Achieving the goals should enable a dignified life worldwide and permanently preserve the natural foundations of life on the planet. But how are the SDGs actually perceived and what can be concluded from this? There has been a research gap here. The few international studies had mostly interviewed broad groups of the population. There was a lack of data

Eine neue Studie der Universität Frankfurt schließt nun diese Forschungslücke. Sie basiert auf einer Online-Umfrage in 41 Ländern in Nordamerika, Südamerika, Afrika, Asien, Ozeanien und Europa, die zwischen September 2020 und Juli 2021 durchgeführt wurde. Die Befragten waren ausschließlich Studierende von umweltrelevanten Fächern, etwa Umweltwissenschaft, Biologie oder Naturmanagement. Auf einer Skala von 1 bis 5 gaben sie an, für wie wichtig sie die einzelnen SDGs halten. „Unserer Studie ist die erste, welche die Wahrnehmung der UN-Nachhaltigkeitsziele in einer so stark selektierten Gruppe von zukünftigen Entscheidungsträgern erfasst und bewertet“, sagt der Erstautor, Dr. Matthias Kleespies von der Abteilung Didaktik der Biowissenschaften der Goethe-Universität.

According to Kleespies, the data showed that the SDGs have a high level of acceptance among environmental students worldwide, regardless of the region. A pleasing result for Kleespies: “The major social, economic and ecological problems that we are currently confronted with worldwide are also perceived as such.”

Using factor analysis, a common statistical method, Kleespies was able to determine something else: the majority of those surveyed assigned individual SDGs to just one of the three pillars of sustainability. For example, the “end poverty” goal exclusively for the first pillar (social) or the “climate protection” goal exclusively for the third pillar (ecological). According to Kleespies, these assignments led to another result: “We could see that there are considerable differences between the countries in the assessment of the three pillars.” Example: The respondents from Germany saw the ecological pillar as particularly important, the respondents from Thailand, on the other hand, rated all three pillars as roughly equally important.

In order to be able to evaluate the country differences even more precisely, a further statistical analysis followed: The results of the individual countries were compared with five indicators of prosperity, including the index of human development (Human Development Index, HDI) and the index of ecological performance (Environmental Performance Index, EPI). A similar picture emerged for all five indicators. In direct comparison, countries with lower indices – like the Philippines – rated the SDGs as more important than countries with higher indices like Canada. “This result surprised us, as older studies often showed that people in modern industrial societies are increasingly committed to environmental protection,” says Kleespies.

Even if it cannot be transferred to the entire population of a country, the study provides important new insights, according to Prof. Paul Dierkes, head of the Didactics department at Goethe University. “In order to be able to put the SDGs into practice in a country, a high level of acceptance is required, not only among the population, but also among the people at the social and political interfaces. Students in the environmental field are particularly important as potential future decision-makers and multipliers. A university education in this area is no guarantee for a decision-making position. However, universities impart important skills, abilities and knowledge that qualify for such positions.”

What improvement measures for university education can be derived from the study? Kleespies says: “The environmental courses should go more into the fact that the SDGs are multidimensional and each of the goals contains a social, ecological and economic component.” The study has shown that students usually overlook this multidimensionality. For example, SDG 15 – “Life on Land” – has often been ranked as the exclusive environmental goal. “However, the protection of terrestrial ecosystems also includes very important economic and social components.” A second proposal is aimed specifically at the wealthier countries, in which the SDGs were rated as less important in comparison. Kleespies calls on the universities there to

More than 4,000 students took part in the online survey. The survey emails were sent to institutes in more than 50 countries. In the end, the data sets for 41 countries were sufficient for a statistical analysis.