Mapping synergies and trade-offs between energy and the Sustainable Development Goals: how, why, and what’s next

21 November 2017

The UCL Energy and Development Group recently published a paper on ‘Mapping synergies and trade-offs between energy and the Sustainable Development Goals’ (access the paper here). One of the co-authors of the paper, Iwona Bisaga, a PhD student from University College London, has written the following blog about how and why this paper was written, and what's next for furthering this research area. 


Around the same time as Millennium Development Goals were nearing the end of their term, and were being turned into Sustainable Development Goals, a group of us at UCL, from disciplines as wide ranging as social, natural, legal and engineering sciences, first started to come together. Reason? Our shared interests in all things energy: infrastructure, technologies, access, equity, poverty, law, generation and more. The broad range of areas of expertise in the energy field enabled facilitation of what we all agreed were timely and important discussions around the role of energy in and for the achievement of SDGs. That energy was missing from the MDGs was clear. Perhaps we would now have fewer than over a billion people worldwide without even basic access had there been a stronger focus on energy over the MDGs’ operational period, who knows. Yet that rather striking gap got noticed and turned into SDG7, opening up new opportunities. The UCL Energy and Development group, which is what participants of our gatherings eventually established, also saw it as an opportunity: one to contribute to the energy dialogue, much more critical now than ever before. 

With open minds, we embarked on a journey to explore the significance of energy in the move towards sustainable development, and that of holistic thinking when considering all the Goals included in the 2030 Agenda. It didn’t take us long to recognise the fundamental role of energy in the pursuit of all other SDGs, so the (initially not so) obvious starting point was to map out synergies and trade-offs between efforts to achieve SDG7 and the 2030 Agenda as a whole. In the course of an iterative process of expert elicitation, we found evidence pointing to three key domains of synergies and trade-offs where decisions about SDG7 affect humanity’s ability to: realise aspirations of greater welfare and well-being; build physical and social infrastructures for sustainable development; and achieve sustainable management of the natural environment. By highlighting the Goals and Targets, despite being set as separate ones, are overlapping and achieving one will not be possible without achieving many others, a sort of framework slowly began to emerge. Another framework?!- you might ask. Sure, there are plenty already out there, but not many (if any at all, correct us if we’re wrong!) that can be used as a guide for designing interventions conscious of the complex web of synergies and trade-offs within and among all SDGs. Being mindful of where efforts can (and should) be complimentary, as well as giving a careful consideration to those Goals and Targets that might have conflicting interests, where the achievement of one might come at a cost to another, or might make the achievement of other ones more difficult (e.g. rapidly scaling up energy access while at the same time ensuring low emissions), will be pivotal for maximising positive outputs and alleviating/eliminating negative ones.

This work is our early attempt at identifying and collating evidence of the synergies and trade-offs in the 2030 Agenda, encouraging the wider community of academics, practitioners and policymakers to contribute to and build on. It can be seen as a map for policymakers and other stakeholders working towards the achievement of SDGs, particularly, though not exclusively, in the energy field. Most importantly, however, it’s an invitation to join us in continued efforts at gathering further evidence, reaching a much bigger audience to inform and engage with. We hope you’re in, one Goal and another!


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