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Public views of the Sustainable Development Goals across countries


The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer an extensive framework for coordinating and shaping government policies, and for engaging the public with sustainability. Public understanding of the SDGs and sustainability can influence this engagement, as people are more likely to accept and share information consistent with their own understanding. We identify public understandings of SDGs through mental maps of how people relate the SDGs to environmental, social and economic sustainability. Using responses from 12 developed/developing countries (n = 2,134), we identified four mental maps that varied mainly on two dimensions, which diverged from some expert models. Some people’s mental maps identified tension between achieving environmental versus social sustainability, whereas for others the tension was between economic sustainability and the other two sustainability elements. Some people related different SDGs to each element of sustainability, whereas others saw all SDGs as targeting the same sustainability element(s). These findings highlight opportunities and challenges to engage the public with sustainability more effectively, especially with wide-ranging initiatives such as a Green New Deal. We observed cultural differences but we also identified a dominant mental map across countries that could serve as a default model for communicating sustainability internationally.

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Fig. 1: The dominant mental map relating SDGs to sustainability elements.
Fig. 2: Mental maps relating SDGs to sustainability elements, showing relationships for those with positive and negative scores for each of the four participant components.

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E.B. was supported by the framework of the Basic Research Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics and a subsidy by the Russian Academic Excellence Project ‘5-100’. We thank R. Bongiorno and A. Mackintosh for their comments on manuscript drafts.

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Authors and Affiliations



P.G.B. conceived and designed the study, developed the new measures, coordinated data collection, analysed the data in conjunction with P.M.K, wrote the manuscript and wrote most of the Supplementary Information. P.M.K., L.J., T.L.M, C.R.C. and T.K. provided input to the basic study design and measures. L.J., T.L.M, E.B., C.C, C.D., Y.G. and J.P provided input into cultural considerations of the study and measures, and provided translations of the survey. P.M.K. wrote part of the Supplementary Information. All authors provided feedback on the results and the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Paul G. Bain.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods 1 and 2, Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Notes 3–7, Supplementary Figs. 1–18 and Supplementary References.

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Bain, P.G., Kroonenberg, P.M., Johansson, LO. et al. Public views of the Sustainable Development Goals across countries. Nat Sustain 2, 819–825 (2019).

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