First goal of UN sustainability targets should be to not conflict with each other

Lucien Georgeson and Mark Maslin

Nice lake. Should we drink it or leave it to the fish? Dave Thompson/PA

The UN’s proposed sustainability targets are riddled with conflicts that could make them ineffective or outright harmful.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with such targets. After all, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had mixed success on health, education and poverty but established the principle that measuring key indicators was a good way to at least begin tackling major issues.

Now, with increasing concern over environmental degradation and climate change the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are currently being negotiated as the successors to the MDGs. Despite a huge effort in setting these goals, the compartmentalisation of major areas such as energy, water and the economy means that they are already in conflict – and this is before climate change is even added.

The latest set of sustainability goals was drafted by a UN working group and presented to the UN General Assembly in September. What we have ended up with is a set of 17 goals, each with various sub-goals, which cover everything from poverty and education to water, climate change and sustainable cities.

While at first glance they appear comprehensive and ambitious, further examination reveals a potentially dangerous lack of understanding of how the different goals will affect each other.

An example of conflict

As the whole range of goals is so large, we’ll just focus on the interaction between the water, energy and climate change goals. In the official language, those goals are:

Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Goals 8 and 9 on economic growth and “sustainable” industrialisation are phrased in such a way that they will impact most others, so we’ll consider them too.

Which goal to prioritise? Georgeson & Maslin

The above graphic illustrates the ways in which the three goals might affect each other and not always in a positive way. The conflicts are caused, to some degree, by the very nature of the goals.

The water goal focuses on water provision and access to modern water services. The proposed model of provision is very Western, based on large infrastructure projects, low levels of water re-use and high energy use. For example, achieving universal access to drinking water and sanitation could be achieved by expanding desalination and waste-water processing, both of which are highly energy intensive. So achieving the water SDGs seems likely to increase energy use, undermining other goals.

The energy goal itself appears to be lifted from Ban-Ki Moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative. The concern is that it prioritises access and affordability and the very word “sustainable” is absent from the sub-goal that states: “by 2030 ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services”. Without sustainability within this goal, the risk is that countries will focus on coal or gas to ensure they achieve it.

This is compounded by the unambitious and vague goals around renewable energy: “increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030” and “double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030”.

We would hazard to suggest that, if globally we only “substantially increase” renewable energy share and the rate of energy efficiency improvement (both are only relative, not absolute, targets), then there is very little chance of meeting the climate change SDGs. Energy production and industry also use lots of water, making the water access goals harder to achieve.

In both cases, it is the concrete, tangible targets that don’t take into account sustainability and environmental impact. For other “aspirational” goals, such as:

Goal 6.6: By 2020 protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.

It’s hard to say what it might look like in practice, or how it is to be measured. Is it compatible with 6.1: “By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”? All that affordable water has to come from somewhere; that somewhere probably means rivers and lakes full of plants and fish and potentially unsustainable new dams or reservoirs.

Climate confusion

Even aside from the cross-SDG conflicts, the problem with the climate change goals is they do not exactly exist yet. Goal 13 acknowledges that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the international forum for setting climate change targets. However slow progress in negotiations means that the new targets from the UNFCCC will not be agreed until after the official announcement of the SDGs in September 2015.

Of course, as our graphical analysis suggests, if national governments choose to prioritise goals such as:

8.1: Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances, and in particular at least 7% per annum GDP growth in the least-developed countries.


9.2: Promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and by 2030 raise significantly industry’s share of employment and GDP in line with national circumstances and double its share in LDCs [least developed countries].

then all other actions will be constrained. In such a scenario, it seems unlikely that the goals on water, energy or climate change will be achieved.

Such absolute, rather than qualified, targets for economic growth and industrialisation are extremely likely to lead to greater levels of energy demand, water use and GHG emissions.

Such confusion emphasises the persistent lack of an environmental, climate change or sustainable development champion within the UN system. If it is left to the existing UN organisations to achieve the targets in their focus areas without sufficient dialogue and co-operation we are likely to see some unexpected and unwanted results.

What is now required is a thorough assessment of what checks can be put in place to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals are genuinely sustainable, as well as what potential negative interactions could take place between the goals. Without this, we might have some goals but we won’t have sustainable development.

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Lucien Georgeson receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This article was produced as part of a University College London - London International Development Centre collaborative research project, 'Thinking Beyond Sectors for Sustainable Development', funded by UCL Grand Challenges.

Mark Maslin receives funding from NERC and The Royal Society.

University College London provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.