06 July 2015

report weighs sustainable development trade-offs

Natural resources management must be an integral part of policy to support the Sustainable Development Goals, argues a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based on IIASA research.

© nengmax | Dollar Photo Club

© nengmax | Dollar Photo Club

IIASA researchers provided the technical analysis for a new report from UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP) entitled Policy Coherence of the Sustainable Development Goals: A Natural Resource Perspective. The report argues that sustainable prosperity for current and future generations requires the maintenance and restoration of ecosystem health.

“This study emphasizes the potential for synergy and management of the trade-offs between the Sustainable Development Goals,” says IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program Director Michael Obersteiner, who is also a member of IRP and leads their synergies and trade-offs management research. “It provides key information on how to make progress on multiple goals simultaneously, showing the vital role of natural resources management in the success of the global sustainable development agenda.”

“There have been previous studies comparing the tradeoffs between one or two of the SDG’s, but until now, no studies have systematically addressed how to balance the competing pressures and objectives that make up sustainable development,” says IIASA researcher Brian Walsh, who contributed to the analysis that underlies the report.

As the world prepares to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP) cautions that unless prudent natural resources management measures become an integral part of policy packages, the SDGs will not fulfill their full purpose — of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and addressing all aspects of sustainable development.

The full report is available for free via the UNEP Web site. (PDF)

The new report shows how all 17 of the proposed SDGs will imply competition for resources, while progress towards 12 is directly related to the sustainable use of natural resources, including land, food, water, energy, and materials. The IRP’s new report assesses the interlinkages, synergies and trade-offs among natural resource-related SDGs that decision-makers must take into account in formulating policies for implementing the SDGs.

The report’s modelling demonstrates that if the SDGs on energy, food security and climate change are addressed by sectoral polices, there will be potential trade-offs between food systems, biodiversity, climate mitigation, nutrient pollution and freshwater use.

As such, progress should be made on all SDGs together, as an integrated, coordinated package, understanding the different goals, their resource requirements, and managing the synergies and mitigating the trade-offs. Further, if policies are combined and coordinated with sustainable consumption and production measures and within a system of environmental and social safeguards, achievement of the combined goals is more realistic.

Progress towards the SDGs related to food security, energy production and water and sanitation, for example, all depend on the same land systems that are subject to conservation strategies that aim to maintain bio-diversity and ecosystem services.

Shifts in production systems that address structural inefficiencies, resource productivity and resource conservation strategies will reduce pressures on land, water and energy to meet the targets of food security, energy access, water security and climate resilience only to a limited extent. Policies addressing the demand-side, such as consumption patterns, will also be required. 

Read the full UNEP Press Release.

Download the report (PDF).

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Last edited: 15 September 2015


Michael Obersteiner

Principal Research Scholar Exploratory Modeling of Human-natural Systems Research Group - Advancing Systems Analysis Program


From 7-10 July, Michael Obersteiner will answer questions about the research via UNEP's "Ask an Expert" Web page.

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