Researchers compare the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals to see how progress toward one goal affects another.
Seychelles national parks researchers map coral reefs around Mahé Island. In 2015, the United Nations set 17 goals to improve the lives of people in all countries by 2030, including goals for protecting oceans and underwater habitats like these. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown, CC BY-ND 2.0
Source: Earth’s Future

In 2015, the United Nations launched a series of 17 so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be pursued in all countries by 2030. The goals include ending poverty, eliminating hunger, good health and well-being, high-quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, innovation in industry and infrastructure, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, taking action on climate, protecting life underwater, protecting life on land, peace and justice bolstered by strong institutions, and partnerships toward achieving the goals.

Within these 17 goals, there are 169 targets and 230 indicators designed to measure countries’ progress toward each goal. There has been a lack of comprehensive and quantitative research in this arena, however, especially in terms of how progress toward one goal affects another. In a new publication, Pradhan et al. seek to rectify this shortcoming.

The researchers compared indicators from the list in sets of two, using the official SDG data to help determine whether each pair had a positive correlation (a synergy) or a negative correlation (a trade-off). Synergies and trade-offs within and between goals were represented by percentages of the positive and negative correlations. The team then ranked synergies and trade-offs at both global and national levels to identify the most common SDG interactions.

The researchers found that for any of the 17 goals, there were more potential synergies than potential trade-offs; in other words, there were more positive than negative correlations. They were also able to trace more specific global patterns; for example, they found that the “no poverty” goal (SDG 1) has a synergistic relationship with most of the other goals, whereas “responsible consumption and production” (SDG 12) presented a trade-off scenario in most cases. The researchers recommend leveraging the synergies that they identified, as well as negotiating and strategizing further, to try to overcome the trade-offs.

As outlined, the Sustainable Development Goals have the potential to protect the environment and improve the lives of billions of people. This study shows, in greater quantitative detail, what it might take to actually achieve them. (Earth’s Future,, 2017)

—Sarah Witman, Freelance Writer


Witman, S. (2018), A quantitative look at United Nations’ global vision for 2030, Eos, 99, Published on 14 February 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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