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.”
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.” He criticised the report for failing to include consultations with partners in developing countries and other research institutions – meaning that it could not capture the realities within poor countries and ended up generalising across nations.
He also says the report needs to be simpler if it is to reach policymakers responsible for implementing the goals.
“No government is rejecting the idea of something that will help them to improve their well-being,” he says. “But they cannot understand the science, or the way it's being written: in the first place, they have not contributed to it.”
He added that Nigeria has resorted to creating a special unit to translate such reports.
But Nilsson says that at this stage, the report is meant to show how the framework works – the next step is to develop it as a practical tool tailored to individual countries.