Fears of SDG clashes overblown, study finds

By on Jun 19, 2017 in News |

[LONDON] Fears that progress towards some Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may undermine achievements in others are largely unfounded, a science-based analysis of their interactions has concluded.

The SDGs were designed with linkages between the health, environmental, and social-economic aspects of development in mind. But it is unclear whether they will reinforce or detract from each other in practice, particularly where overcoming poverty clashes with increasing sustainability. One study, for example, has found that environmental protection policies might get in the way of reducing food prices.

Now a report published by the International Council for Science (ICSU), which had previously raised concerns about trade-offs,  suggests the targets mostly reinforce each other.

“Climate-friendly strategies tend to give not only emissions reductions but also strong outcomes in agriculture, health and energy access.”

Måns Nilsson

It says that making these dynamics explicit, and understanding them, can help policymakers set priorities for implementing the SDGs “to ensure that progress made in some areas is not made at the expense of progress in others”.

The team assigned a score to each of over 300 interactions between targets for agriculture (SDG2), health (SDG3), energy (SDG3) and oceans (SDG7), using a combination of literature reviews and expert judgement. They found three-quarters of the interactions (238) were positive; just a fifth (66) were negative, and less than four per cent (12) were neutral.

“Given the difficulty of reaching political agreement on advancing various goals, it is quite interesting that there is such a large dominance of positive interactions and relatively few negative ones,” says Måns Nilsson, research director at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden and lead author of the report, published by the International Council for Science (ICSU).

Taking note of the dynamics could save time and money, he says. For example, promoting gender equality turns out to be a cost-effective way to reach better health outcomes or better agricultural productivity amongst smallholder farmers.

And tackling climate change emerges as an area where benefits cut across goals.

“Climate-friendly strategies applied in different sectors tend to give not only emissions reductions but also strong outcomes in agriculture, health, energy access or in urban development and access to mobility for citizens,” he tells SciDev.Net.

On the other hand, there are areas that need coordinated policy. Protecting marine and coastal ecosystems could hit economic activity and limit job creation – a case that should prompt policymakers to coordinate and tackle the trade-offs, suggests the report.

But coordination entails a multidisciplinary approach that is hard for some poor countries to achieve, says Allam Ahmed, senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and founding president of the World Association for Sustainable Development.

“They need ministries to work together: education, health, environment and so on. [But] ministers don’t even know how to work with this multidisciplinary overlap.”

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