1. Complexity versus clarity and transparency

The closer we look at issues and processes unfolding around the globe, the denser the network of interconnections and relationships. At the same time, sound decision-making requires information that is accessible, digestible, and useful. How can we balance the growing complexity of socio-environmental systems with the need for knowledge to be simple and transparent?

Trase.earth is a free online platform that allows you to follow flows of soy, beef, or palm oil through the supply chain, down to the sub-national region of production most relevant for decision making. Trase.earth can help buyers of these commodities, striving to meet sustainability commitments and de-risk their supply chains and assess how their activities might contribute to water stress or deforestation. It can also help governments in commodity producing countries to monitor the activities of companies operating within their borders and build better partnerships, and civil society organizations and consumers can be empowered to monitor and assess trade-deforestation linkages and hold key actors accountable.

Through its data-driven visualisations Trase (for Transparency for Sustainable Economies) can help people navigate the extraordinary complexities of agricultural commodity trade by making them clear and transparent. Insights from Trase allow decision-makers to see the impacts of different decisions and so improve the sustainability of global supply chains.

Watch an introduction to Trase:

2. Can we have it all?

Sustainable development has been based on meeting the social, environmental, and economic needs of our species. But can we really have it all?

Policy-makers and academics alike are thrilled by the possibility of finding synergies between these three needs, and the same is true for the 17 SDGs. Yet many retain a healthy scepticism and are concerned that, given the realities of governing and policy, difficult choices may have to be made. To what degree are synergies possible, and how might decision-makers make trade-offs if confronted with them?

SEI is testing with policy-makers an innovative framework for understanding interactions between SDG targets, aimed at both capturing synergies and identifying policy priorities when trade-offs are needed. The framework is built on a seven-point scale that examines the interactions between any two of the 169 SDG targets. Interactions can range from the most positive (+3, indivisible), through “consistent” (0), all the way to the most negative (-3, cancelling).

In practice, this method is applied to SDG targets that are relevant for a particular policy context. The aim is to understand how the sustainable development priorities of an administration may support or undermine one another. This allows decision-makers to allocate scarce resources toward targets that are most likely to help them achieve their goals.

“The framework both helps us to think about the interactions between the SDGs by providing a common language and clarifies our shared interests to guide collaboration” said Nina Weitz, SEI Research Fellow.

The influence of one Sustainable Development Goal or target on another can be summarised with this simple scale. Source: M. Nilsson, D. Griggs and M. Visbeck (2016). Map the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals. Nature. 534(7607)

3. Climate and development – just linked, or indivisible?

Sustainable development will depend on tackling the grand challenge of climate change. An entire goal (SDG13) is devoted to climate action, yet many climate adaptation experts argue that weathering the effects of a warming world will mean building resilience among the world’s vulnerable people, including through promoting human development.

Are combating climate change and pursuing sustainable development two interconnected yet separate processes, or two halves of an indivisible whole?

Presenters at the forum argued that climate action goes well beyond SDG13 – an insight supported by the new online NDC-SDG Connections Tool. The tool examines and visualises the connections between the Paris Agreement on climate change and Agenda 2030.

Countries have made official statements on their individual contributions to reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement. (These statements are called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, in UN terminology.) Researchers compared thousands of these action statements (known as NDC Activities), and compared them with the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets.

Besides the goal on climate action, results indicate that the SDGs on hunger, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, and life on land (SDGs 2, 6, 7, and 15) make up a significant portion of the activities outlined by climate policies. Additionally, SDG17 on partnerships features strongly, suggesting that international cooperation and support will be critical to both climate action and sustainable development.

The tool also enables detailed analysis of individual SDGs. The majority of NDC activities under SDG3 on good health, for example, are focused on ending epidemics and diseases (Target 3.3), but far fewer are aimed at reducing maternal mortality rates (Target 3.1). The tool also allows users to compare across countries and regions and identify co-benefits that cut across SDGs.

Explore the NDC-SDGs connections tool

The NDC-SDG Connections homepage.

Pursuing the ambitious sustainable development agenda will demand innovative thinking and a willingness to make difficult choices.

Ground-breaking tools like these can be part of the solution by addressing tensions, cutting through complexity, and supporting international cooperation.