The interaction between Noise and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Eoin A. King
Mechanical Engineering and Ryan Institute, NUI Galway, Ireland

*This is an edited version of a conference paper presented by the author at INTER-NOISE 2021, Washington D.C.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Golas (SDGs) describe the major development challenges in the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental equality, and social equality. The SDG Framework comprises 17 broad goals, that cover a wide range of issues including poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water, clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, climate, responsible consumption, and production, amongst others. Although noise and its management are not clearly identified in any of the 17 goals, this article posits that if noise is not adequately addressed, it will present a significant challenge to the realization of sustainable development.

Excessive noise has very well-established links to adverse economic, environmental, and social impacts, and, in the pursuit of the SDGs, a failure to include noise as a consideration in sustainable development may jeopardize the likelihood of success. This aspect is even more important considering noise has earned the moniker of ‘forgotten’, or even ‘ignored’ pollutants. Noise must not be forgotten (or ignored) as the world strives for a more sustainable future. To demonstrate the interactions between noise and the SDGs, this article divides the goals into 3 broad categories and draws on various studies to illustrate examples of the wide-ranging impact noise exposure may have, and how they might serve as a barrier to meeting the SDGs.

Noise and Economic-focused SDGs

In the context of the SDGs, transport plays a central role in the drive towards sustainable growth. It is necessary to provide essential access to markets and supply chains. This is even more important in a global economy, where economic opportunities have been increasingly related to the mobility of people and freight, including information and communication technologies [1].

However, transport has significant negative externalities, including noise pollution. For example, on a global scale, shipping is the most widespread and persistent source of underwater noise. As the primary vehicle of global trade (∼80% by volume), shipping, and its resulting noise pollution, are closely linked to global economic activity [2]. Transport, economic prosperity, the SDGs, and noise are all intrinsically linked.

Excessive noise exposure has real monetary impacts; reduction in house prices, lost labor days, reduced possibilities of land use, not to mention the significant cost of treating adverse health effects. In 2007, the social cost of road traffic noise in the EU22 was estimated to be at least €38 billion per year, approximately 0.4% of total GDP in the EU22 [3]. For rail noise, the cost was estimated to be a not insignificant €2.4 billion per year. These figures are based upon noise mapping results for the EU Noise Mapping Directive and only consider noise levels in excess of 55dB(A), hence are likely underestimates. Elsewhere, it has been estimated that a 5dB(A) reduction in exposure levels across the U.S. would reduce the prevalence of hyperextension by 1.4% and coronary heart disease by 1.8%, yielding an annual economic benefit of $3.9 billion [4]. While in the UK, Harding et al, (2013) estimated increased cases of hyperextension-related acute myocardial infarctions, stroke, and dementia per year, due to exposure to daytime noise, which cost the UK economy £1.09 billion [5].

Noise and the Social focused SDGs

The commitment to eradicating poverty is an overarching objective of the SDG agenda [6]. Noise can adversely impact this commitment in a surprising number of ways. Take fisheries for example; small-scale fisheries play a critical role in supporting livelihoods and reducing poverty for millions of people living in coastal communities, with an estimated 56.6 million people around the world dependent on the fisheries and aquaculture sector as a full or part-time source of income and livelihood [7]. Studies have shown that commercial fish catch rates drop substantially, with larger fish leaving an area coincident with noise events, and that increased bycatch rates and decreased fish abundance have been observed in the presence of noise [8].

Another example includes education. Education is key to sustainable development, improving the overall quality of life, and securing a successful (SDG 4). Recent studies have found that acoustic is essential in education, and is directly related to the implementation of emerging pedagogies [9]. Conversely, studies have found that tasks involving central processing and language comprehension, such as reading, attention span, problem-solving, and memory, appear to be most affected by exposure to noise [10].

Noise and the Environmental focused SDGs

Environmental noise has traditionally been dismissed as an inevitable fact of life and has not been targeted and controlled to the same extent as other health risks [10]. Mounting evidence linking noise to adverse health effects, coupled with proactive legislation, primarily in the EU, is now driving change. Clear links between excessive exposure to environmental noise and adverse health effects, such as annoyance, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disorders, and impaired cognitive development of children, have been established [11]. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 1 million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in Western Europe [12].

Again, if we consider shipping, which is vital for global trade, attention must be drawn to its significant negative externalities that threaten sustainable development. In comparing noise levels recorded in the 1960s to the early 2000s, McDonald et al. observed a 10-12 dB increase in ocean ambient pressure spectrum level in the 30-Hz band [13]. This was likely attributed to both an increased number of vessels, but also increased average gross tonnage and horsepower per vessel. Mounting scientific evidence links noise exposure to a range of detrimental effects on marine mammals, sea turtles, fish, and invertebrates [14].


This article highlights the wide-ranging impacts noise exposure can have, and posits that the management and control of noise is an absolute necessity in the pursuit of the UN SDGs – noise control cannot be a forgotten aspect of a sustainable society. For further, more in-depth analysis, the readers are referred to a recent study that provides a detailed account of how noise can be a barrier to each of the individual SGDs [15]. It is clear that the effects of noise need to be better integrated into concepts related to sustainable development, and commitments to meeting the SDGs must not be at the expense of the sonic environment.

The absence of noise as a consideration in the UN SDGs does not represent a significant departure from traditional thinking in this space. As reported in this issue of NNI, at the INTER-NOISE conference in 2005, Tor Kihlman’s keynote talk highlighted noise as an important but neglected, barrier to sustainable development. He identified a number of required developments that needed to occur to make cities sustainable, including, for example, that road vehicles need to be 10 dB quieter to give reasonable preconditions for the planning and development of sustainable cities. The noise control community knows what must be achieved for sustainable (acoustic) development, but there has been a disconnect between development and noise control. It is clear that a failure to address noise will present a significant challenge to the realization of the SDGs.


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[11] World Health Organisation, Guidelines for community noise, 1999.

[12] World Health Organisation, Burden of disease from environmental noise, 2011.

[13] McDonald, M.A., Hildebrand, J.A., and Wiggins, S.M., Increases in deep ocean ambient noise in the Northeast Pacific west of San Nicolas Island, California. J. Acoust. Soc. Am.120: 711– 718, 2006.

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[15] E.A. King, Here, There, and Everywhere: How the SDGs Must Include Noise Pollution in Their Development Challenges, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 64:3, 17-32, 2022.