“The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets . . . are integrated and indivisible” according to the opening paragraph of Transforming Our World, the document that sets out the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Managing the interactions between goals and targets – to exploit synergies and minimize trade-offs – will be crucial to success. But how do we identify and analyse those interactions? SEI Research Director Måns Nilsson discusses a new practical framework for mapping and categorizing SDG interactions, presented in the current issue of Nature.

Q: What is the framework and why is mapping SDG interactions important?

A: The 2030 Agenda represents recognition at the highest level that development takes place in a continuum – when you make progress in one area, it always affects others, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. In the article we propose a simple way of categorizing these interactions between policy areas and actions, along a seven-point scale from +3 (“indivisible”) to -3 (“cancelling”). The framework is designed particularly to support policy-makers and policy analysts with implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Take, for instance, SDG Goal 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. In many ways energy is indivisible (+3) from industrialization and resilient infrastructure (covered in Goal 9): greater productivity and efficiency and technological improvements go hand-in-hand with modern energy solutions.

Modern energy is also typically enabling (+1) or reinforcing (+2) to health targets (Goal 3); for example, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, air pollution from inefficient cookstoves leads to an estimated 3–4 million deaths every year, and makes millions more sick. Rural clinics and hospitals need electricity to work. Conversely, better health is generally consistent (0) with energy goals, meaning there are no significant positive or negative interactions.

For education (Goal 4), access to modern lighting enables homework and night schooling, and an educated and skilled labour force enables (+1) the delivery of energy.

When it comes to climate mitigation (Goal 13), increasing modern energy access is constraining (-1) when it relies on fossil fuels, but this constraint diminishes with the shift towards renewables. Looked at from another angle, reducing climate risk enables (+1) power production, as unmitigated climate change lowers the potential of hydropower (for example due to altered rainfall patterns) and requires greater cooling in thermal plants.

Often it’s a matter of how you set about making progress; for example, some solutions to ending hunger might put pressure on children to earn income or gather food, and that will harm their studies. And weakness in institutions, legal rights and governance procedures can turn potentially positive interactions into negative ones.

Q: Policy interactions are notoriously complex. Is there a danger that your framework is too simplistic to deal with this complexity in a meaningful way?

A: It’s true that policy interactions can be very tangled. But our framework is aimed foremost at practical policymaking. Politics has its own dynamics, and any framework to support political processes must take that into account. As much as some analysts would like to superimpose a sophisticated and quantitative policy analytical layer, this is simply not how it works. To reflect this reality we aimed for a framework that:

  • is simple and qualitative
  • will help policymakers to chart “friends” and “foes”
  • and will help them to map solutions onto problems and vice versa.

Of course, the usefulness of this framework depends totally on applying empirical evidence, which has to come from in-depth scientific research on policy interactions. You need this evidence to help policy-makers map interactions in the first place. And once they have done this, scientists and policymakers need to co-create research into solutions that can best exploit positive interactions and minimize trade-offs.

Q: Your co-authors in the article are Dave Griggs of the Monash Sustainability Institute in Australia and Martin Visbeck of GEOMAR Helmholtz-Zentrum für Ozeanforschung in Kiel, Germany. How did this team come together and what are the next steps with the framework-

A: The Nature piece is based on work we have been doing together under the International Council for Science (ICSU), published today in an ICSU Working Paper, A Draft Framework for Understanding SDG Interactions. ICSU will be creating a platform for scientific research by diverse teams, gathering empirical evidence on interactions in different policy domains and what expertise is needed to explore them at national level.

Of course, we also need to make sure the framework gets used. We hope to set up science-policy dialogues to help policymakers understand the science of interactions and how to apply it. A first opportunity to do this would be to put SDG interactions on the agenda at the High level Political Forum in New York in July, which I will be attending.

Learn more about SEI’s work on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda »

Read the open-access Comment in Nature »

Read the ICSU Working Paper »