30 October 2015

A new nexus for sustainable development

Options Magazine Winter 2015: IIASA is at the center of integrated research efforts supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015

© InkkStudios | iStock

© InkkStudios | iStock

Imagine a world where poverty does not exist; where people have access to all the water, energy, and food that they need; where women enjoy equal rights, equal pay, and equal access to education in every country; where forests are preserved, the ocean is clean, and climate change has been halted.

Reading about the problems in today’s world—wars in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe, wildfires across North America—this may sound like an unrealistic fantasy. But world leaders have now agreed on a set of goals aimed at making major progress on these issues by 2030. Although it is clear that the challenges are large, the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted this fall aim to provide a road map to dealing with the interconnected challenges of poverty, inequality, and environmental change.

The SDGs come with 169 indicators of progress and also recognize, for the first time, the linkages between consumption in the developed world and scarcity in the developing world. IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic says, “The SDGs are a huge achievement for humanity that could empower those who have been excluded in the past. But at the same time they also apply to those who live in affluence.”

“The strength of the SDGs is that they really cover everything,” said science policy expert E. William Colglazier, former science and technology adviser to the US Secretary of State and IIASA distinguished visiting fellow, at a meeting at IIASA in September. “The weakness is that they are not very useful in terms of focus, with so many different goals.”

Now that the SDGs have been adopted, experts agree that a greater challenge lies ahead in implementing them. IIASA researcher Nils Johnson says, “It’s not simple to try to achieve all of these objectives simultaneously. Trying to achieve one goal might conflict with trying to achieve another. So how do we identify these trade‑offs? How do we best manage them?”

IIASA has already fed directly into several of the goals, particularly those focused on climate and energy. Researchers at the Institute are now using the goals as a framework to direct integrated analysis across sectors and disciplines. Through several new cross‑cutting projects, they are advancing policy‑relevant research that can help the international community to successfully implement the goals.

Balancing conflicts and identifying synergies

In a recent study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program Director Michael Obersteiner and colleagues provided one of the first efforts to examine the linkages between the environment, food security, and climate change.

“The structure of this analysis is looking at policies in a single sector, to find out how they affect other sectors—for example, what is the global effect of a carbon tax on food security,” says IIASA researcher Brian Walsh, who worked on the analysis. Using the IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), the researchers found that all 17 of the SDGs imply competition for land, food, water, and energy.

“This study emphasizes the potential for synergy and management of the trade‑offs between the SDGs,” says Obersteiner. Even in the interdisciplinary research environment at IIASA, studies that cross multiple disciplines are a methodological challenge and can stretch the limits of models and computer power. Each new sector added into a calculation adds a level of complexity and requires the models to be modified so that they can “talk” to one other.

In a new project currently being planned with the Global Environment Facility and United Nations Industrial Development Organization—Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land—researchers will work across four main sectors: ecosystems, food, energy, and water. The project will for the first time link together some of the cutting‑edge models developed at IIASA— including GLOBIOM and MESSAGE (Model for Energy Supply Strategy Alternatives and their General Environmental Impact)— with a water resource model. This will create a “supermodel” of sorts that can assess the trade‑offs and synergies among multiple sectors.

In addition to modeling studies and scenarios, the project will include case studies focused on specific regions, in order to incorporate on‑the‑ground perspectives and practical information.

“The goal is to identify how the solutions change when these other dimensions are incorporated,” Johnson explains. “The scientific challenge is that each one of these sectors, or silos, is incredibly complicated. It’s too big for any one group. So the challenge is to break down these silos and get people to think outside of their box to work together on something so multi‑disciplinary.”

Another new research project, The World in 2050, takes an even broader view of the SDGs, looking beyond the end of the initiative to the year 2050. IIASA is partnering with the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network to build holistic pathways for achieving equitable development without overreaching planetary boundaries.

Together, these research projects and other new and continuing projects at IIASA provide multiple levels of analysis that will help inform the implementation of the SDGs.

“It’s a nested structure,” says Johnson. “The UNEP project was looking at the trade‑offs between ecosystems and food production; the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land project is looking at ecosystems, food, energy, and water; and The World in 2050 is trying to assess all 17 SDGs at a higher level, with a longer time horizon. Each one of these lower level modeling projects will inform the ones above them.”

Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/news/communications-material/

Science for policy - global and national

While research supporting the SDGs is still in early phases, connections with policymakers have already begun in earnest. IIASA leaders took part in the Third International Conference on Sustainable Development, held in conjunction with the SDG summit at the UN in September. And at the European Forum Alpbach—a major annual meeting of international decision makers—in August, IIASA researchers held in‑depth discussions with the Alpbach–Laxenburg Group (ALG), a reflection group made up of world leaders from government, business, and science.

The ALG emphasized that the development and adoption of the SDGs is just the beginning and that the focus should now be on implementation. Following the meeting, IIASA Director General and CEO Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat said, “There has been a great deal of work on forming the SDGs which has led us to where we are today, but now there is still much to be done to ensure they are implemented successfully to enable a sustainable future for all.”

The group also emphasized the vital role of measurement and accountability in tracking progress towards the goals, a point also highlighted in a recent article in the journal Nature, in which Nakicenovic and colleagues argued that data gathering and evaluation will require coordinated effort from the global scientific community.

As a next step, the SDGs will need to be translated into national‑level roadmaps, based on each country’s different starting points and targets. Another new IIASA research project, Linking Climate and Development Policies: Leveraging International Networks and Knowledge Sharing (CD‑LINKS), brings the research to a national level through modeling and stakeholder consultations.

The core objective of CD‑LINKS is to develop transformation pathways, that is, potential storylines that show how climate change mitigation could occur in conjunction with other sustainable development objectives—including economic development, energy poverty, air quality, water, food security, biodiversity, climate adaptation, and energy security—and what trade‑offs and synergies will emerge between the goals.

IIASA researcher David McCollum, who is working on the project, says, “The SDGs provide aspirational goals. It’s up to each country to decide how to get there, and each will do it in a different way. That’s where the CD‑LINKS project comes in—it will provide information that can be used to make plans of action, with specifics about what options are available where.”

While the SDGS may seem an overwhelming topic to address, researchers working on these issues say they find the challenge inspiring. “Nobody has the answers to these problems at this point, but I find it so important that these goals are in place,” says Johnson. “They provide a context under which people can begin to identify and evaluate sustainable solutions.”

“When looking at 17 different goals and 169 indicators, it’s difficult for the human brain to keep track of all the interactions. This is precisely where IIASA’s systems approach to modeling and analysis can provide the necessary scientific support for policy,” adds McCollum.

Further information

  • Lu Y, Nakicenovic N, Visbeck M, Stevance A‑S (2015). Five priorities for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nature 520(7548):432–433 [].
  • UNEP (2015). Policy Coherence of the Sustainable Development Goals – A Natural Resource Perspective. .

Text by Katherine Leitzell

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Last edited: 03 December 2015


Nebojsa Nakicenovic

Emeritus Research Scholar Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program


Alpbach-Laxenburg Group


International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313