In 2015, the United Nations set 17 sustainable development goals, laudable aims to help humanity to pursue a better future that included reducing inequality, eliminating extreme poverty and addressing climate change. The UN hoped to achieve all of them by 2030. In some areas, we’ve made impressive progress: Now only 1 in 25 children globally dies by the age of 5, a fivefold reduction since 1960. The news is equally encouraging elsewhere; for instance, every year, more people gain access to electricity and clean water.
Even so, the idea that we might actually realize all the goals by 2030 is clearly fanciful, not least because we’ve made virtually no progress in addressing climate change, as carbon dioxide emissions continue to soar. There’s a deeper problem, too — progress on one goal may hamper action or even cause regress on others. Fortunately, as a new study shows, pursuit of some goals appears to stir up far fewer conflicts than pursuing others, so our choice of priorities could make a big difference.
It’s not surprising that some of these goals conflict with others. We can reduce hunger by farming more intensively, but doing so almost certainly leads to increased pressure on the environment. Action to combat malaria by providing mosquito nets can lead to increased fish capture, at least in the short run, as locals find other uses for the nets. Synergies aren’t always obvious, either; reducing inequality, for example, seems to have a beneficial effect on overall public health.
The difficult task is using real data to make such connections more evident. Biologists David Lusseau and Francesca Mancini of the University of Aberdeen have found a way to do so, by using data gathered by the UN and the World Bank over 25 years. Lusseau and Mancini used the data, which chart progress toward each of the 17 goals, to estimate an empirical association, positive or negative, between goals when compared to each other. The researchers refer to the results of this analysis as the sustainome — a data-based picture of how all the goals interact with one another.
The sustainome reveals some fairly obvious things, but also some surprises. There are three important conclusions.
First, there are big differences between rich and poor nations, and the various goals interact very differently in the two settings. In low-income nations, the clearly most beneficial goal — one that has a positive influence on all others — turns out to be reducing poverty. In contrast, in high-income nations, the broadly most beneficial goal is reducing inequality. In both cases, there’s likely a similar mechanism at work, Lusseau suggested to me in an email.
Even small reductions in inequality in high-income nations give millions of people more flexibility to lead different lives and reach their potential as they see it. In low-income nations, the same is true of reducing poverty: People who were struggling even to survive now have the chance to make real choices in deciding how to live. In both cases, people with more resources find it easier to pursue education, find better work and live in other ways that promote sustainability.
The second important finding is that the situation in low-income nations shows no conflicts at all. Efforts to make progress on any of the 17 sustainable development goals contributes to progress on all of them. That’s encouraging, as it implies that there’s still room for easy progress in poorer nations, and continued efforts should help build sustainability in many ways. The data suggest that the apparent conflicts that do exist — say, between fighting malaria and preserving fish supplies — are outweighed by the many other positive synergies among different goals.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there’s bad news, too. The third conclusion is that efforts in high-income nations to combat climate change, the data show, tend to have some negative consequences for all the other sustainable development goals. This is the case, it seems, because our system of energy production and use is so central to all our human activities that almost any step toward changing it brings important short-term costs, inhibiting our ability to achieve other goals. Twenty-five years of data, sadly, shows no conflict-free path forward on climate.
As developing nations become more wealthy, they too will face the same challenge. In the long run, failure to address climate change will bring disaster. Yet in the short run, any action will push us backward on the other goals. It’s a true dilemma.