A Draft Framework for Understanding Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Interactions

A Draft Framework for Understanding Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Interactions (1)

Contributed by our Director of Research – Dr. Cristiano Varrone

Edited by: Dr. Lisa Kozycz 

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On July 15, 2016, 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 into 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. If mutually reinforcing actions are taken and trade-offs minimized, the agenda will be able to deliver on its potential.

In the 2030 Agenda, the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainable development are intertwined and cut across the entire framework. Indeed, while most of the 17 goals have a clear starting point in one of the three pillars, most goals actually span all three dimensions across their targets.

SDG 2 “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture” contains targets related to social (e.g. malnutrition and vulnerability), economic (e.g. agricultural productivity and financial services) and environmental dimensions (e.g. genetic diversity and climate resilience), exemplifying how there are significant interactions between goals. Staying with the food SDG example, a commonly discussed set of interactions lies in the nexus between food, water, and energy (2). For instance, water is required for energy production in cooling thermal power plants and generating hydropower; energy is required for water pumping and irrigation systems; and water is needed for irrigating agriculture. There are also competing resource requirements: for example, food production may compete with bioenergy production for the same land or water.

Articulating these linkages helps explain why the 2030 Agenda must indeed be treated as an indivisible whole. However, in that phrase there is a hidden presumption that the interactions between goals and targets are—for the most part— mutually supporting; in order to achieve one goal area you also need to address the others. At the same time, both the research community and policy makers have paid attention to the fact that there are probably as many goal conflicts and trade-offs as there are synergies.

While the scientific community has emphasized the need for a systems approach to sustainable development, scientists, like policy-makers, are now facing the challenge of turning the goals into reality.

The problem is that policymakers and planners operate in silos. Different ministries handle energy, agriculture, and health. Policymakers also lack tools to identify which interactions are the most important to tackle.

The 2030 Agenda focuses on the existence of trade-offs and synergies between sectors, and the need to map them out and identify ways to alleviate or remove trade-offs and maximize synergies. However, this area currently has a weak conceptual and scientific underpinning, and no common framework to analyze the nature and strengths of these interactions, and the extent to which they constrain or enable policy and action.

Seven possible types of interactions are rated, from the most positive (scoring +3) to the most negative (–3). These can be applied at any level — among goals and targets, to individual policies or to actions (see ‘The wins and losses en route to zero hunger’ (3)). For practical policy making, the process should start from a specific SDG — in line with a minister’s mandate — and map out, score, and qualify interactions in relation to the other 16 goals and their targets.

The framework consists of a typology of interactions, organized on a seven point ordinal scale, and should be considered as a starting point for building an evidence base to characterize the goal interactions in specific local, national or regional contexts. There is no formal platform for sharing such knowledge yet, but the International Council for Science (ICSU) is beginning to use the framework and populate it with empirical evidence.


Beyond trade-offs and synergies – a seven-point scale of SDG interactions

Thinking carefully about interactions, and more specifically the range of different types of interactions (so not just “positive” or “negative”), is important because they may have very different implications in terms of implementation actions. Interactions between goals (such as SDGs and/or their targets) are presented on a seven-point ordinal scale, indicating the type of the interaction with other targets, and the extent to which the relationship is a positive or a negative one. Not all linkages between SDGs and targets will neatly fall into one of the seven points on the scale, but they provide a sufficiently wide range to classify most relationships.

The nature of the interactions can be determined at the level of targets, or at the level of instruments (used to reach a certain target). The choice depends on the purpose of the assessment: in some cases, we would like to know how, if a target is reached, it will directly affect another policy area. In other cases, we would like to know how, if a certain intervention or instrument is pursued, it will affect another policy area. An example is the use of certain taxation or incentives (= instrument) to improve energy efficiency (= target). The effect of the taxation on other Goals can be different from the effect of the enhanced energy efficiency. Whether to examine the relationship between targets or instruments, or (more likely) a combination, needs to be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

Key dimensions that shape the interactions

The impact and influence that a certain action can have on the others can depend on many parameters and local conditions. For instance, while some relationships are generic, others are highly context-dependent. As an example, bioenergy production is widely assumed to counteract food security through land competition. But in the Nordic region, bioenergy markets have reinforced the agricultural and forest production systems — offering new and more diversified market opportunities and increasing farmers’ and forest owners’ resilience (Geographical context-dependency). On the other hand, even if bioenergy in the Nordic countries is not considered to affect food security there, a joint change in their food export patterns to support national bioenergy production could still have an impact on food security globally.

In some cases, the negative nature of a relationship can be the result of poor governance (for instance actions taken without public involvement, consultation or compensation of local communities, etc).  Negative impacts on local communities are more likely to occur, or tend to be larger, when institutions and rights are weak (Governance-Dependency).

In some cases there is a real trade-off but there are technologies that when deployed will significantly mitigate these trade-offs, and even remove them – think for instance about new technological solutions that can mitigate harmful emissions – (Technology-Dependency). On the other hand, certain interactions may be restricted in time to the actual period of intervention. When the intervention ceases, the interaction stops (Reversibility). Other interactions are irreversible or take a very long time to “wear out” such that affected systems recover (i.e. species extinction, collapsed fisheries or changed states of eutrophication).

Certain interactions play out in real time, whereas others show significant time lags. For example, increases in fertilizer use will help to alleviate hunger today, but over-application could reduce our ability to produce food for future generations (Time sensitivity).

Finally, the interaction between two areas can be unidirectional or bidirectional, and symmetrical or asymmetrical. For example, electricity access is needed for powering clinics and hospitals for the delivery of health care services, whereas health care services in clinics and hospitals are not needed for providing electricity access (Directionality).

Other forms of coherence relationships

Another type of coherence relationship exists across jurisdictions. We can for instance consider to what extent the pursuit of objectives in one country has international repercussions or affects the abilities of another country to pursue its objectives, which leads to cross-jurisdictional concerns that need to be addressed through appropriate indicators. For instance, it is often the case that while new policies and goals can be easily introduced, institutional capacities for implementation are not aligned with the new policy designs and are also much more difficult to develop. There may be a mismatch between the goals and targets established at the global level, and the agenda as interpreted at the national level and acted upon at the local level. Finally, coherence relationships should be considered along the implementation continuum: from the policy objective, through the instruments and measures decided, to the actual implementation practice on the ground, which often deviates substantially from the original policy intentions.

Analytical questions for case study research into SDG interactions

The framework outlined above is intended to form the basis of a report presenting the analytical framework and a set of examples from different SDG areas testing and applying the framework. The report seeks to provide conceptual tools as well as evidence-based recommendations to policymakers on the management of interdependencies through context-specific analysis of synergies and trade-offs around specific policy areas. The areas that have been identified initially to road-test the framework, are food and agriculture, health, and energy.

For partnership development enquiries, please contact:

Anne-Sophie Stevance, Science Officer at the International Council for Science (anne-sophie.stevance@icsu.org).

Check back soon to see what NESSE is doing about SDG! 


1 Måns Nilsson, Dave Griggs,Martin Visbeck and Claudia Ringler. (June 2016). Working paper “A draft framework for understanding SDG interactions.” Paris: International Council for Science (ICSU).

2 Weitz, N., Nilsson, M. and Davis. M. 2014. A Nexus Approach to the Post-2015 Agenda: Formulating Integrated Water, Energy, and Food SDGs. SAIS Review of International Affairs, 34 (2):37-50. doi:10.1353/sais.2014.0022

3 Måns Nilsson, Dave Griggs and Martin Visbeck. Map the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals. Nature;Vol 534:320-322. 16 June 2016.