Editorial: The nexus and the Sustainable Development Goals

Alice Hague (The James Hutton Institute)

Progressing the Sustainable Development Goals requires understanding complexity: MAGIC research shows a way to achieve that.

Announcing the European Green Deal in December 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined an aim “to reconcile the economy with our planet, to reconcile the way we produce and the way we consume with our planet and to make it work for our people.” Research undertaken through the MAGIC project over the past four years has used an accounting framework to characterise and understand patterns of production and consumption of resources within global systems. In casting light on the flows of resources within the water-energy-food nexus, the approaches developed within MAGIC also identify the implications of trade-offs necessary to achieve the different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prioritisation of targets is often a political rather than scientific decision, so our research can help decision-makers better understand the implications of trade-offs, and enable greater transparency in the decision-making necessary to pursue the SDGs.

In this issue of the Nexus Times, we investigate some of the challenges of the SDGS, and show how research approaches developed through the MAGIC project can help researchers and policymakers understand and interrogate complexities within social-ecological systems.

Joep Schyns’ article takes the example of freshwater: “Clean water and sanitation” (SDG6) clearly focuses on water, but freshwater resources are fundamental to other SDGs including food security (SDG2), energy security (SDG7), life below water (SDG14), and life on land (SDG15). In his article, Schyns uses case studies to highlight how research undertaken through MAGIC assesses interlinkages in the water-food-energy-ecosystem nexus to inform better policy-making in the EU. Schyns highlights the need to understand water impacts in EU energy planning, and shows how research reveals the lack of coherence between current EU agriculture and water management policies. Such findings stress the importance of understanding of complex systems if we are to achieve the SDGs.

In our second article, Kirsty Blackstock and colleagues consider the governance of the SDGs within Europe, and explain how the EU governance system adds another layer of complexity to achieving the SDGs. The authors highlight how the EU’s approach has traditionally focused on the external dimension of the SDGs, relating to development aid and trade issues, with a less coherent internal strategy beyond using existing policies. The complexity of shared competence between the EU and its Member States also has an effect, with individual countries, as well as the EU, being signatories to the SDGs.

The third article in this issue is by Mario Giampietro, who emphasises the challenges entailed by the need to prioritise SDGs when addressing issues of sustainability. Explaining one of the processes used in MAGIC and identifying different narratives that can be used to address sustainability challenges, Giampietro points out the necessity of addressing the quality of the process determining trade-offs associated with policy choices. The role and selection of indicators, a fundamental part of measuring progress towards achieving the SDGs, involves political decisions, which can always be contested. Giampietro highlights how this means that the use of indicators outside of an appropriate political process of deliberation can be problematic

Our final article is by Raúl Velasco-Fernández, who offers broader questions about the political nature of the SDGs. Velasco-Fernández points out what he sees as a ‘lack of concreteness and accountability’ of the 2030 Agenda, and wonders whether the all-encompassing nature of the SDGs make them politically unquestionable, essentially depoliticizing their discussion. Given the need for SDGs, the article raises the question of how to frame trade-offs in relation to the effects of the water-energy-food nexus when discussing their implementation. Velasco-Fernández also points out the imbalance in trying to achieve the SDGs within the current economic paradigm, without recognising the biophysical limits of the world in which we live.