The Sustainable Development Goals with Keywan Riahi

Aug 16, 2017 by

by Janos Csala & Marius Kreienborg

Today AEMS took us to the beautiful outskirts of Vienna, the little town of Laxenburg and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), proud resident of the Laxenburg Schloss. After an intensive yet interesting week and a well-deserved weekend, we did not only get to sleep an hour longer, but also made the refreshing experience to have a change of scene from the BOKU classroom. The day at IIASA was dedicated to discussing the ecological boundaries in terms of ecology and energy, and the morning session, after having been introduced to IIASA, its history and activities, took up the topic of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a set of 17 intrinsically linked universally applicable (both in the Global South and North) global goals with 169 targets. They are a voluntary framework that interweaves human security and development with the underlying health of  ecosystems and our biophysical ‘boundaries’. The goals incorporate the social, economic and ecological pillars of sustainable development. In order to move toward (and create new) juster and safer development pathways by 2030 we need to avoid “competition” between the former two and the latter. We need to create solutions through which we can leverage synergies and manage potential trade-offs between these goals. Researchers at IIASA are developing models and tool-kits which can aid decision-makers in identifying and evaluating relationships between the SDGs (and national development priorities and objectives), and potential trade-offs.

One of the emphasized synergies between transitioning toward ‘sustainable’ and ‘modern’ energy systems (SDG 7) and human and planetary security is reducing greenhouse gas emissions (SDG 13 and the Paris Accord on Climate Change) which are the predominant drivers of the climate crisis. This would significantly reduce air pollution related illness and death worldwide as well (SDG 3 and 11).  Another striking feature, and a  challenge  which is easy to forget when you are being dazzled by the positive vision of the SDGs, is that some of the goals  could have  negative impacts on one another when policy-makers attempt to achieve both of them without (contextually relevant) robust scientific information.

A prominent example of this are the two goals of ending hunger and protecting land, emphasising the more general trade-off between developmental and  ecological objectives. If hunger is to be eradicated it will require large amounts of land masses worldwide that will have to be used for agricultural purposes, more food will have to be produced, impacting the quality of land, its life and the environment in general. It will also involve agricultural practices that limit the availability of renewable energy. This is not to discredit the SDGs, it would be a mistake to leave one out for the mere sake of achieving another, particularly because the makers of the SDGs explicitly reject the idea that there is a certain hierarchy of goals and that some should be prioritised over others (which, on a side note, is also something that can be questioned: why would ending hunger be at the same level than innovation, for instance?). Instead, so it has been argued, it is the sequence that could be essential.

But why would we need to produce more food to eradicate hunger when the root cause of it is unequal distribution? Ecologically and socially destructive production and wasteful consumption are also linked with this problem. Why should producing more food necessarily have such a negative impact on ecosystems when a multitude of sustainable agricultural practices exist? Why would agricultural practices necessarily limit renewable energy? These questions are masked by the currently dominant and inherently flawed economic models as it was highlighted during the discussion after the lecture.

An inherent tension within the SDGs lies in Goal 8 which calls for further GDP growth. This raises fundamental questions. Why should we further increase GDP in the Global North? Let alone how could we without undermining critical life supporting ecosystems, destroying resources and aggravating inequalities. How would future pathways look like under alternative economic and monetary models and practices? While the SDGs have their limitations and challenges they offer us pathways toward sustainable development. Frameworks that have the ambition to shape the future are always flawed, but it is up us to ensure that they realised.