What was the regional study about?A
In 2018 the EEA approached SEI because it was seeking input for the 2020 update of the European Environment – State and Outlook (SOER). The EEA wanted to gain a systemic view of the SDGs in the EU – how the SDGs function together, and the interactions between them. In particular, they wanted to see what role some key environmental targets under the SDGs could play in delivering on the 2030 Agenda as a whole.
This gave us an exciting opportunity to try out applying the SDG Synergies approach at the regional level – so far, it’s only been applied at national and sub-national levels, most recently in Colombia and Sri Lanka.
We focused on three policy questions:
- Which environmental targets have the greatest potential to foster progress on the broader 2030 Agenda in the EU?
- What direct trade-offs and synergies with other SDGs could result from progress on environmental targets in the EU?
- What are indirect effects, across the network of SDGs, of making progress on environmental targets in the EU?
As the study was chiefly meant as a proof of concept, we put particular emphasis on customizing the approach for the focus on eight targets perceived as being particularly relevant to environmental policy-makers. Assessment of the individual interactions – the foundation of any SDG Synergies analysis – was done by a small group of experts rather than through the kind of longer collaborative process with stakeholders we do when the approach is being used as a decision-support tool in a real policy process.
What makes applying SDG Synergies at a regional level different from applying it at another level?A
To be relevant for policy-making, assessments of how the SDGs interact need to look at the level on which policy decisions will be made. We must therefore learn how to apply the SDG Synergies approach at scales from the very local to the regional, and even the global. For EU member states, EU policy determines how many of the interactions will play out, as well as the scope for addressing trade-offs and exploiting synergies.
The main challenges we found in applying SDG Synergies at EU level was the great diversity between the EU member states. The more specific you can be about the issues, challenges, policy ambitions, governance and technological options available for making progress on a target, the more detailed the analysis can be. For a diverse region, the assessment inevitably becomes more abstract and the baselines vaguer. A more thorough policy analysis, which was beyond the scope of our proof-of-concept exercise, could help in overcoming this.
What did you learn about how these eight environmental targets interact with the other the SDGs in the EU?A
First, we found a lot more synergy than trade-off across the interactions – this is often the case when we apply the SDG Synergies approach. However, when it comes to overall synergistic influence on implementation of the 2030 Agenda in the EU, several goals scored higher than any of the environmental targets. Target 13.1 (on climate adaptation) came in fifth place. But some of the other environmental targets scored quite low. This synergistic potential is something policy-makers will be interested in capturing and unleashing, as it means some goals and targets can act as accelerators for implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
The report also highlights some trade-offs between progress on the environmental targets and the other goals – something policy-makers will need to manage and try to mitigate, including through coordination with policy areas outside their remit.
Taking the eight environmental targets together, while they interacted positively with all the other goals, there were also some trade-offs with SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 7 (Clean Energy), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure) and 10 (Reduced Inequalities). Goal 9 turned out to be one of the most challenging from this perspective. In the report we illustrate the trade-offs between Goal 9 and environmental targets – which are often short-term, linked to the huge investments needed in the transition to greener industry and infrastructure.
Finally, the study once again underlined the importance of looking beyond just direct interactions to considering how the goals and targets influence each other via each other and the value of systems thinking for guiding prioritization of action and for organizing cross-sectoral collaboration in SDG implementation.
What’s next for SDG Synergies?A
In this proof-of-concept exercise, we did not involve stakeholders in assessing interactions, as the aim was not to support policy change. A natural next step would be to initiate a similar process with EU policy-makers enabling SDG Synergies’ full potential as a decision-support tool.
We also have two SDG Synergies case studies drawing to a close, one in Colombia at sector level and one at national level in Sri Lanka. We will hopefully be able to draw some useful lessons from these.
When it comes to the methodology, so far we have only scraped the surface of what is possible with cross-impact and network analysis. One of the major methodological developments we have underway is generating a set of future scenarios of SDG progress (or lack of progress) that are consistent with historical patterns of interaction between the targets. These scenarios can serve as reference points for policy development, as they show where the system is heading and which targets will take the hit without new policy measures.
Another extension of SDG Synergies is to consider the transnational angle – how progress on the SDGs in one country could interact with progress in another – and integrate this into the interactions assessments. This would to the guiding principles of the 2030 Agenda of universality and “leaving no one behind”.
Finally, we have been developing a digital tool that facilitates applying the SDG Synergies approach. This tool will be released soon, meaning that in the longer term stakeholders will be able to do this kind of interactions analysis with or without the support of SEI.