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Additional efforts needed to avoid conflict in Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations aim to improve all issues simultaneously: social, economic, and environmental outcomes. However, a new study shows that eliminating extreme poverty and reducing income inequality often leads to higher environmental impacts. Therefore, additional efforts to design integrative policies and to reduce humanity’s footprint are needed to overcome such trade-offs among SDGs.

Researchers at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) at Leiden University investigated how the pursuit of the two social SDGs 1 (no poverty) and 10 (reduced inequality) affects impacts related to the three environmental SDGs 6, 13, and 15. These concern the availability of water and sustainable water management, combating climate change, and restoring ecosystems and the sustainable use of land.

Integrative design

Overall, improving social welfare is associated with higher environmental impacts. For instance, raising incomes to a minimum of $1.90 per capita per day, which is still very low, increases carbon, land, and water footprints by 1.9, 3.3, and 5.6%. However, the interaction depends on the specific country and goals. Any policy design, therefore, must be integrative and requires context-specific solutions. This highlights the enormous challenge ahead of us on the way towards sustainability.

To get to these results, the researchers analysed such environmental impacts of 166 nations, in which consumers were subdivided into four income groups. This is important because the environmental impacts per person differ among income groups. In addition, it allows us to examine how the overall environmental impacts change in scenarios when redistributing the population among income groups to achieve the social SDGs.

Safe and just planet

The SDGs dominate the international political agenda for 2030. While some initial progress was achieved, the framework also received some criticism, and the diverse interactions between the many goals and targets are not yet well understood. This study provides insights into such interactions.

'If we want to live on an environmentally safe and socially just planet, both high- and low-income groups need to make more efforts towards environmental sustainability', said Laura Scherer, lead researcher of the article. 'While the social development of low-income groups is desired, despite its possible effect on environmental impacts, there is a clear role for high-income groups to lead the reduction in humanity’s footprint.'

The research by Laura Scherer and her colleagues is being published online in the journal Environmental Science and Policy this week.

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