Towards an Understanding of Synergies and Trade-Offs Between Water, Energy, and Food SDG Targets

Jill Engel-Cox, Marianela Fader, Colleen Cranmer, Richard Lawford

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105 Scopus Citations


Achieving the targets set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) will require committed efforts by nations and organizations over the coming decade. To determine which actions work most harmoniously within funding, infrastructure development, and implementation of three closely aligned goals, we conducted an assessment to identify where the greatest synergies may occur and where conflicting resource needs create trade-offs that may threaten SDG success. The SDGs each have several targets that need to be realized for the goal to be reached. In the present study, we developed a methodology where each target of the SDG 2 (food), 6 (water), and 7 (energy) was analyzed for its input requirements, infrastructure needs, and the risks and benefits for the provision of ecosystem services. Then the targets were compared pairwise and a total score of interaction was calculated to determine different levels of synergies and trade-offs for every pair. In some cases targets were mutually supportive, in other cases there were no interactions among the targets, and for some areas the targets were in conflict with each other. For example, targets 2.5 (maintain genetic diversity), 6.5 (implement integrated water resources management) and 7.a (enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy) have no conflicts with other targets and have different levels of synergies with most of the other targets. On the contrary, various targets of SDG 2, and especially the target 2.b (correct and prevent trade restrictions), are in slight conflict with other targets by potentially overusing resources needed by other targets or threatening ecosystem services. Our approach confirms the general belief that SDG 6 (water) has the highest number of potential synergies (a total of 124). Thus, achieving the water targets will make it continuously easier to achieve other targets. While the results may need to be adapted for a specific locality or country, overall they provide an improved understanding of the interactions between the targets. The value of the study lies in the quantitative methodology as it can be used as a replicable analysis for any level of work on SDG implementation.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number112
Number of pages11
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
Issue numberNOV
StatePublished - 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Fader, Cranmer, Lawford and Engel-Cox.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-6A50-72168


  • 6
  • 7
  • SDGs 2
  • Sustainable development goals - SDGs
  • Synergies between SDG tagets
  • Trade-offs among SDG targets
  • Water-food-energy nexus


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