Affective Sciences: A Missing Link to Delivering the 2030 Agenda - SDG Lab commentary in Emotion Review

With just over seven years left to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this commentary in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion Review provides the SDG Lab’s perspective on how better understanding emotions could serve as the missing link to greater progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and long-term sustainability.
Affective Sciences: A Missing Link to Delivering the 2030 Agenda - SDG Lab commentary in Emotion Review

By Edward Mishaud, Eleonora Bonaccorsi, and Alma Galicia Cruz

This commentary appears in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion Review and was first published online on August 13, 2023. Individuals interested in accessing the original online version, please click here. Individuals interested in receiving the original laid out version are requested to email: sdg-lab@un.org.

Framing the Sustainable Development Goals

On 1 January 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into force, adopted by 193 Member States of the United Nations. The 17 goals represented a transformation: For the first time in the history of multilateralism, governments agreed to a universal sustainability-focused agenda applicable to all nations.

The timeline to achieve the SDGs was set to 2030, giving the international community an ambitious deadline of 15 years to “free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet”1. While some observers may have seen the 2030 Agenda’s timescale as purely aspirational, for the United Nations system and other development actors, the timeframe served as an unprecedented call to action.    

Now in 2023, more than seven years since the goals’ adoption and at the midway point to 2030, the SDGs, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, are “tremendously off track”2. Across nearly all 17 SDGs (Figure 1), progress has either stalled or reversed. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other conflicts, the climate crisis, together with cascading effects, have shifted attention away from the 2030 Agenda at a time when efforts need to be accelerated not truncated. Against this backdrop, and as SDG practitioners, it is pertinent to raise some key questions: Why are we not seeing more progress on the SDGs and more awareness of the 2030 Agenda as the current best plan for sustainable development, and how can affective science enhance delivery of the SDGs and become mainstreamed in future frameworks?

Figure 1. Sustainable development goals (5)

Compounding challenges

We raise these questions because we are confident that affective science, by integrating different disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, among others, can help to unlock more action and progress on sustainability—and because, put simply, we do not have the answers. To help unpack this issue and identify potential research topics for further inquiry, we do have some hunches as to why the SDGs and sustainability – from an emotion research angle – appear to be facing an uphill battle. From our vantage point, the challenges are complex and many, yet there are two significant hurdles that can be distilled as follows: general ‘issue fatigue’ and the linguistics of the SDGs and sustainability. While we see these areas as interrelated, they each warrant further exploration from the perspective of emotion science.

Issue fatigue: Are the SDGs out of fashion?

Issue fatigue is “an individual’s negative state that emerges because of overexposure to an issue that news media cover extensively over a long period” (Gurr & Metag, 2021). If we apply this definition for argument’s sake, we feel confident in saying that citizens worldwide are not over exposed to or over-aware of the SDGs. If anything, the situation is quite the opposite: SDG awareness remains relatively low despite concerted efforts to make the goals top of mind. According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) survey conducted in 28 countries in 2019, although three out of four respondents were aware of the SDGs, familiarity levels varied: From an impressive 92% of respondents in Türkiye having heard of the goals to just over half of respondents in Great Britain, Japan and the United States reporting to have never heard of them (World Economic Forum, 2019). On a more positive note, the survey pointed to higher levels of SDG awareness in developing countries.

Paradoxically, even though awareness of the SDGs appears to be average at best, and the 2030 Agenda is just at its midpoint of implementation, there is already a pull among some practitioners (e.g., policymakers, activists, etc.) towards discussing what comes next. We know first-hand as we are witnessing it in our interactions with partners. Arguably, this development could be viewed as how multilateralism remains relevant, but it is disconcerting to see attention shift from the 2030 Agenda towards questions about what will come after it. This is especially pertinent to flag as there seems to be a clear information and awareness divide between the public, as highlighted through the WEF survey, and policymakers who are vying to position the next sustainable development agenda.    

Linked to this, perhaps the excitement and promise of the SDGs has been diminished by the barrage of global crises and subsequent reprioritization of efforts, or the perception that the SDGs have not yet lived up to the vision that was set in 2015 (Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability, 2022). Irrespective of these and other sentiments, we contend there is a growing sense of issue fatigue towards the SDGs. To move forward, it is imperative for governments, the United Nations, other international organizations, and civil society among others to use the remaining seven years to accelerate progress.

Do you speak ‘Sustainability’? Language and (in)Action

Sustainable development is a complex concept and science. While the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ appear in many facets of daily life, from consumer marketing to regulatory frameworks—albeit mainly associated with the environment—there is a lack of understanding on what sustainable and sustainability actual mean (Purvis et al., 2019). That the SDGs are intrinsically embedded in sustainability science and theory does not make for an easy task when it comes to communicating on the goals and efforts to affect widespread behavior change.

However, and in contrast to some past development agendas and frameworks, the SDGs are presented in language that is relatively approachable. The use of action-oriented verbs and simple top-level objectives, such as “End poverty”, “End hunger,” and “Ensure healthy lives”, help promote individual agency and engagement. Where things get more complicated is with the goals that are more abstract and require higher levels of both knowledge and awareness of sustainability concepts; goals like ‘SDG 10 – Reduced inequalities’ and ‘SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals’ are cases in point. While one can argue the public does not need to be aware of or grasp the SDGs in their entirety, and that onus should fall on governments, international organizations, and civil society, it has been our experience that a lack of understanding of the goals and the interlinkages between them runs large across sectors and stakeholders. Language can clearly be a barrier to action.

Furthermore, the language and style used to spur action for the SDGs has evolved over the years, which, depending on one’s perspective, could also influence behavior and action. In reviewing some early SDG communications and literature, campaigns focused on explaining the goals and awareness raising. Discourse was generally positive in tone, with messaging emphasizing the achievability of the goals.

Fast forward and there appears to be a significant shift in style. Messages by thought leaders and decision-makers are gravitating towards being more negative and consequential. The use of words like “devasting”, “urgent”, “quicker”, paired with phrases such as “deep trouble”, “time is running out” and “off course”3 represent a stark break from earlier SDG messages that were more optimistic, motivational and uplifting.

As sustainability practitioners, we must ask ourselves the utility of alarmist or negative communication tactics and consider the possible impact on the SDGs. While there is little doubt that the international community finds itself in an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ moment, research has shown how communicating about failure can have repercussions on people’s emotions and behavior (Brosch, 2021).

So, what’s next?

In view of the arguments raised, how can the field of affective and emotion sciences help contribute to sustainable development and overcome the barriers identified? It is a timely question to raise, as the SDGs represent humanity’s current best framework to respond to the challenges we are facing.

As we attempted to outline in this article, there are many hurdles to seeing more progress on the goals. From our perspective, how we communicate on the SDGs and sustainability is a pressing consideration to be pursued by scholars and practitioners working in affective sciences. The points raised on knowledge levels, issue fatigue, and language styles are intertwined and may have a compounding effect on the uptake of the necessary sustainability actions and behaviors that the 2030 Agenda calls for.  

We also argue for better understanding of how to tell positive SDG and broader sustainability stories and successes without inadvertently fuelling complacency and inaction. Mastering this fine balance is needed to spur further SDG progress. An equally pertinent consideration for the affective sciences community is to find ways to be more embedded in the intergovernmental processes on the SDGs and any eventual post-2030 frameworks that emerge. Having scientists and scholars who are versed in emotions and behavior part of progress review groups, advisory and scientific bodies, and negotiating teams could provide invaluable insights and recommendations to bridge the gap between policy and practice.

For its part, the UN has placed behavioral sciences as one of several core enablers of Our Common Agenda4, the Secretary-General’s vision of global cooperation over the coming decades, and different avenues are being explored to help bring more of this field into the UN sphere. For example, the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB), created by the Secretary-General in 2022, has identified recommendations to deliver a “breakthrough for people and planet” (HLAB, 2023). Listed among the transformative shifts is strengthening the science-policy and society interface through a UN-led Science-Policy-Action Network (SPAN) that would, among several responsibilities, use behavioral sciences to offer actionable recommendations to governments and other implementers (HLAB, 2023).

While we are cognizant of the complexity of this subject and that affective sciences will not, on its own, remove the barriers to SDG implementation, there is a clear need to establish greater research and actionable links and points for collaboration among the sustainable development and affective sciences communities. Proposals such as that made by the HLAB could serve as an ideal platform for scientists and scholars to engage in a concrete and meaningful way. Because collectively advancing the SDGs and promoting long-term sustainability more broadly is not only crucial but, in the spirit of the 2030 Agenda, it represents the required mindset shift to bring this transformational vision to life.


Brosch, T. (2021). Affect and emotions as drivers of climate change perception and action: A review. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 42, 15–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2021.02.001

Gurr, G., & Metag, J. (2021). Examining Avoidance of Ongoing Political Issues in the News: A Longitudinal Study of the Impact of Audience Issue Fatigue. https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/16290/3413

High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB, 2023). A Breakthrough for People and Planet: Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future. https://highleveladvisoryboard.org/breakthrough/pdf/highleveladvisoryboard_breakthrough_fullreport.pdf

Initiative for Leadership and Sustainability. (2022, May 20). People will suffer more if professionals delude themselves about sustainable development – Letter to UN. http://iflas.blogspot.com/2022/05/people-will-suffer-more-if.html

Purvis, B., Mao, Y., & Robinson, D. (2019). Three pillars of sustainability: In search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science, 14(3), 681–695. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0627-5

World Economic Forum. (2019, September 23). Global Survey Shows 74% Are Aware of the Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.weforum.org/press/2019/09/global-survey-shows-74-are-aware-of-the-sustainable-development-goals/


[1] Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda accessed 10 January 2023

[2] “Tremendously off track” to meet 2030 SDGs: UN chief, UN News https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/07/1095722 accessed 6 February 2023

[3] UN Secretary-General's remarks at the opening of the 2022 High-level Segment of ECOSOC, Ministerial Segment of High-Level Political Forum https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2022-07-13/secretary-generals-remarks-the-opening-of-the-2022-high-level-segment-of-ecosoc-ministerial-segment-of-high-level-political-forum accessed 8 January 2023

[4] Our Common Agenda: Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations: https://www.un.org/en/content/common-agenda-report/assets/pdf/Common_Agenda_Report_English.pdf accessed 13 February 2023

[5] UN Sustainable Development Goals Communications Materials https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/news/communications-material/ accessed 25 January 2023

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