Next month in New York, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development will have its first global progress review. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the agenda represents a new coherent way of thinking about how issues as diverse as poverty, education and climate change fit together; it entwines economic, social and environmental targets in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an “indivisible whole”.

Implicit in the SDG logic is that the goals depend on each other — but no one has specified exactly how. International negotiations gloss over tricky trade-offs. Still, balancing interests and priorities is what policymakers do — and the need will surface when the goals are being implemented. If countries ignore the overlaps and simply start trying to tick off targets one by one, they risk perverse outcomes. For example, using coal to improve energy access (goal 7) in Asian nations, say, would accelerate climate change and acidify the oceans (undermining goals 13 and 14), as well as exacerbating other problems such as damage to health from air pollution (disrupting goal 3). …

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