The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations on 25th September 2015 and are now mid-way to the target implementation deadline of 2030. A set of 17 goals with 169 targets are being used to guide all UN Member States in implementing the challenging 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
From the beginning, it was recognised that the goals and targets were interlinked and integrated (UN 2015) and that this had to be considered for SDG implementation to ensure policy coherence. However, while addressing this agenda, countries may lose sight of the synergies and trade-offs between goals and their targets. Reasons for this are linked to the complexity of monitoring a large number of indicators, the lack of methods, data, and/or means to quantify some of the indicators, the lack of a definitive framework to address synergies and trade-offs, and gaps in our knowledge on how goals and targets influence each other. Yet, understanding how these interactions take place remains essential to minimise trade-offs and maximise synergies, and in the process, ensure we are making progress towards achieving the SDGs and avoid wasting resources when doing so.
The issue is, therefore, complex, and in the past few years approaches have been developed to identify and quantify synergies and trade-offs between goals and between targets, particularly at the national scale at which countries report to. Less work is underway on synergies and trade-offs at the global or subnational scales, even though these scales are also relevant to ensure equitable development (‘leaving no one behind’ as prioritised by the UN-CEB 2017) internationally, nationally, and within countries (Nilsson et al. 2016a).
This Special Feature highlights the diversity of available assessments to characterise SDG synergies and trade-offs and the range of innovative approaches and models that have been developed or improved upon to support this. This is in recognition that understanding these synergies and trade-offs at multiple spatial and temporal scales is essential to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. The multiplicity of approaches reinforces the diagnostic made by Alcamo et al. (2020) that convergence on a single method and methodology has not yet happened; and that a ‘perfect methodology’ does not yet exist (Breuer et al. 2019: 13). The implication is that results of SDG synergy and trade-of analyses may lead to very different results depending on the method used, which can be deemed as problematic in terms of informing policies and developing concrete actions on the ground.
Although efforts to reach method convergence might be desirable, it is also important to recognise that synergies and trade-offs between SDGs are context and case-specific (Nilsson et al. 2016a, b; Breuer et al. 2019), and that having multiple, tested models and tools available at hand to characterise these might bring flexibility (e.g. to overcome monitoring costs, data availability, and/or capacity bottlenecks) and still allow for robust assessments to be carried out. Furthermore, many of the available approaches are complementary to each other as they can allow to overcome limitations of each individual approach in addressing the huge gaps in data and knowledge. From the viewpoint of their practical applications, it is suggested to discuss the limitations and differences from other approaches in future research on SDG synergies and trade-offs.
As we are mid-way through the implementation of the SDGs, scepticism could emerge as to the relevance of developing tools to track their interactions. However, we believe that the more we address complex human–environment relationships that can inform our understanding of SDG interactions at various spatial and temporal scales, the more likely we are to provide solid evidence to prioritise and integrate development policies in the future.
Published July 2022