The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals provides a blueprint to achieve peace and prosperity for people around the world, offering a set of strategies to developed and developing countries to end poverty, improve health and education and combat climate change. But the 17 goals are highly interdependent on one another and may result in conflicting interactions and diverging results.

The Millennium Development Declaration was adopted by United Nations members at the Millennium Summit in September 2000, and consisted of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed to reduce extreme poverty by 2015. There were later calls for further elaboration of the MDGs in the post-2015 development agenda, which resulted in the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets to ensure human well-being, economic prosperity and environmental protection simultaneously. The set goals are interdependent and provide a blueprint for a global partnership between developed and developing countries to achieve economic prosperity, environmental protections and to safeguard the well-being of people around the world. 

A 2017 study investigated the Sustainable Development Goals and identified various synergies and trade-offs between goals and targets, analysing its interrelated positive and negative correlations. Researchers found the SDGs are highly interdependent on one another and the goals may result in conflicting interactions and diverging results. Significantly, concerns were observed regarding the success of balancing the objective of climate change mitigation, economic development, environmental sustainability and the social inclusion of human well-being. Thus, the study identifies the successes of synergies and investigates whether trade-offs can be tackled. 

The study found that SDG 1 (No poverty) had the greatest synergy with the other SDGs (see  figure 1). The goal of no poverty appeared five times in the global top 10 synergy pair list. It was found that reducing poverty is statistically linked to favouring the progress of SDGs 3 (Good health and well-being), 4 (Quality education), 5 (Gender equality), 6 (Clean water and sanitation), and 10 (Reduced inequalities). 

sustainable development goals, sdgFigure 1: Global ranking of Sustainable Development Goals’ pairs in terms of synergies (left) and trade-offs (right). Source: Pradhan, P., Costa, L., Rybski, D., Lucht, W., & Kropp, J. P, 2017. 

SDGs 3 (Good health and well-being) also had high amounts of synergies with other goals, including SDGs 1 (Poverty Reduction), 4 (Quality education), 5 (Gender equality), 6 (Provision of clean water and sanitation), 10 (Inequalities reduction). 

One of the reasons suggested behind the higher synergies of some SDGs is that some goals have the same indicator or target with other goals. For example, “number of deaths, missing persons, and persons affected by disaster” and “number of countries with national and local disaster risk reduction strategies” are both included as a target in SDGs 1 (No poverty), 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), and 13 (Climate action). This would imply that the progress of these targets would benefit all three of these goals at the same time, creating a synergy of the SDGs. 

On the other hand, trade-offs are prominently observed in SDGs 8 (Decent work and economic growth), 9 (Industry, innovation, and infrastructure), 12 (Responsible consumption and production), and 15 (Life on land). Significantly, SDGs 12 and 15 frequently appear as a goal with a trade-off to other goals as seen in figure 1 above. SDGs 12 and 15 have trade-offs with 10 and 12 goals respectively

It was observed in the study that trade-offs between the SDGs occur because the goals with high trade-off percentages are focused on economic growth. This often results in improved human well-being at the expense of environmental sustainability. For instance, to reduce poverty (SDGs 1) which improves human welfare as a whole, SDGs 12 (Responsible consumption and production) has to be sacrificed as consumption and production would increase at a rate that would substantially cause impact on the environment. 

A prominent example of the trade-off between SDGs 1 and 12 is the dilemma between deforestation and increasing food production. Many have argued that deforestation rates are reaching an increasingly dangerous level, posing an immediate threat to the environment. Yet, others argue that securing food production is much more important to the well-being of humans.

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Another example of a trade-off is the relationship between the increase in manufacturing jobs and environmental degradation through carbon emissions. This issue is especially severe for developing countries who are hoping to catch up to the developed ones through rapid economic growth. Yet, developing countries face constraints in the form of environmental goals and policies.

Moreover, it was discovered that developed countries generally provide greater well-being, but are often subjected to greater impact on the physical environment. Thus, goals that focus on economic growth and human well-being often have a negative correlation with the other goals that focus on environmental sustainability.  

Furthermore, the study also found that trade-offs and synergies are not globally balanced and are geographically restricted. Synergies are mainly found in developed countries, whereas trade-offs are mainly found in the developing countries as seen in figure 2 below. 

sustainable development goals, sdgFigure 2: Global distribution of the difference between the shares of synergies and trade-offs among the SDG goals by country. Green colour represents countries where synergies have a higher share than trade-offs, whilst the orange represents the opposite. Source: Pradhan, P., Costa, L., Rybski, D., Lucht, W., & Kropp, J. P, 2017.

Some countries, especially the developed ones, have a positive and advantageous starting point in implementing the SDGs. This is due to their relatively larger percentage of synergies than trade-off pairs. It was found that the synergy pairs in countries such as Finland, Germany and Japan were at least 60% more than the trade-off pairs. Thus, this suggests an interesting pattern in the global distribution of synergies and trade-offs of the SDGs. 

Moving on, it was pointed out that SDGs 3 (Good health and well-being) had the highest share of synergies with all the other goals across the world. Interestingly in 2015, approximately 2.7 billion people lived in countries where SDGs 3 had synergy with SDGs 6 (Clean water and sanitation). Furthermore, approximately 6.8 billion people live in countries where SDGs 3 is one of their top synergy pairs. 

With this phenomenon observed, it is suggested that prioritising good health and well-being (SDGs 3) will substantially help the advancement of other SDGs. Instead of focusing on achieving the goals separately, perhaps countries can utilise the synergies of the goals to help advance the progression of other goals.   

On the other hand, SDGs 3 (Good health and well-being) and 12 (Responsible consumption and production) was identified as the top trade-off pair in 121 countries. This indicates that SDGs 3 and 12 are the most common trade-off pairs across the world. It was explained that this is due to the trend where countries with more established health care and well-being are often found with a greater environmental footprint. Here, it can be observed that there is a negative correlation between the two goals, where the improvement of one would hinder the advancement of the other.  

Interestingly, the study pointed out that around 3.4 billion people live in countries where the dependency or correlation between good health and well-being and consumption and production needs to be improved or reinvented. Significantly, it was emphasised that if this dependency is not revised, a “lock-in effect” will occur, where countries have to sacrifice one goal for the progression of the other. 

However, the study has also pointed out that there are examples where synergies between SDGs 3 and 12 exist, although only for a small number of countries. This suggests that a synergy between these 2 goals can indeed exist. This highlights that the “lock-in effects” of trade-offs can be broken or reinvented, through policies of the past and present. 

In general, the study asserted that the goals and targets of the SDGs should not be “seen as an additive structure, but as a system of synergistic re-enforcements”. Instead of looking at the goals as separate identities, they should be treated as “cogwheels” that are dependent and interact with one another. 

Moreover, the progress and achievement of the SDGs in the future will depend on whether the synergies and trade-offs can be identified and tackled. Typically, having more synergy pairs suggest a stronger foundation for the success in the implementation of the SDGs. An example would be SDGs 3 as suggested above. By identifying the synergy pairs, it can help the advancements of other goals. 

Importantly, the study concludes the investigation by stating that policies that foster “cross-sectoral and cross-goal” synergetic relations will significantly help the operationalisation of the Sustainable Development Goals in the future.