Lamenting the lack of progress on various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including biodiversity protection and greenhouse gas emissions, world leaders at the SDG Summit in New York on September 18 and 19, 2023, once again reaffirmed their shared commitment to eradicate poverty and end hunger.
They also recognised that the world was on track to meet only 15% of its 169 targets that make up the 17 goals – with quite a few going in reverse gear – and to that committed to an SDG stimulus of $500 billion annually as well as to define an effective debt-relief mechanism for the economically poorest countries.
Little to inspire confidence
While this political declaration needs to be welcomed as a renewed commitment to Agenda 2030, half-way since its first announcement, there is little to inspire confidence that there will be greater progress in the second half of the commitment period.
A 2023 report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated the investment gap in SDGs in developing countries to be greater than $4 trillion, which is 70% higher than estimates arrived at in 2014. Of this, nearly $2 trillion needs to be directed towards the energy transition alone!
These staggering figures, representing the estimated sum of investment required by specialised agencies responsible for tracking each SDG, seem unachievable, thus rendering the SDGs seemingly unachievable as well.
A fundamental statement in the Agenda 2030 document detailing the SDGs, however, recognises the indivisible and integrated nature of the 17 SDGs and their contribution to the three pillars of sustainable development. A lot of the academic literature has also focussed on the ‘synergies’ and ‘trade-offs’ that exist in the pursuit of specific SDGs.
One such paper, published in by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 30, 2019, identified five types of (dis)synergies that can be estimated along the value chain of an SDG intervention: those arising from resource allocations; creation of enabling environments; co-benefits; cost-effectiveness; and saturation limits. The paper was based on pilot studies in 2018 in three countries – Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Malawi – that quantified the savings estimates by taking a limited synergistic approach.
There are very few other such quantifications available, and much less empirical evidence arising from real life examples.
A recently launched U.N. Expert Group Report, entitled ‘Synergy Solutions for a World in Crisis: Tackling Climate and SDG Action Together’, also laments the lack of synergistic action in the face of significant (modelled) evidence. It classifies key barriers to such an approach into knowledge, political and institutional barriers, and economic issues.
Barrier for small-scale applications
This said, policymaking processes are generally robust, with a clear view on synergistic outcomes, especially when multi-stakeholder approaches to policymaking are practiced. For example, in India, the push for renewable energy started with both energy security and air pollution in focus, and received an impetus with climate commitments. However, it hasn’t been able to leverage the health benefits arising from lower air pollution to strengthen arguments for greater incentives for renewables.
At the same time, the ambitious renewable energy targets themselves became a barrier for small scale applications – nonetheless with high development impact – due to a mis-alignment of deliverables. While the energy departments had targets in gigawatts, primary health centres had needs in kilowatts, leading to their neglect in energisation, even though the health outcomes could have been very significant.
Siloised operations, inadequate cross-departmental data collection and analysis, and an inability to attribute co-benefits to specific actions are all barriers for meeting greater targets.
Not just interlinks
Simply recognising interlinks without a robust analysis and understanding of institutional barriers won’t yield the outcomes India desires. As such, there is merit in both assessing as well as addressing barriers identified in the U.N. report in our national context. This in turn should prompt the country to strengthen the environment for synergistic action, and make transparent both the opportunities and limits to synergies arising from SDG interventions.
India has made significant progress on both its climate and sustainable development goals. But it still has an uphill task ahead before it can meet all the SDG targets by 2030 – as well as its promise to be net-zero by 2070. In the realm of energy, which is a key contributor to both the net-zero and SDG goals, India continues to invest in high-carbon sources for reasons of security and reliability of supply, while our significant renewable energy expansion is just about keeping pace with the increasing energy demand nationwide.
Full cost estimation
With a deadline less than 50 years away to transform our economy, every new investment we initiate today leading to a high-carbon outcome will likely lead to higher dis-synergies or trade-offs in our ability to achieve our energy and climate-justice goals. Establishing the domestic energy resources we have for reasons of enhancing resilience to shocks is a worthwhile goal but exploiting those resources without a full cost estimation – including weighing India’s own vulnerability to climate-change impacts – of alternative pathways with their synergistic opportunities is detrimental to both national and global efforts.
On the other hand, investing in clean energy options for urban transport could have a significant synergistic impact on air pollution and human health, increasing the attractiveness of such interventions.
India can require all its entities engaged in SDG reporting to start identifying and developing reporting frameworks on the value created from specific SDG interventions. Existing literature on the subject, modified to reflect our national and local contexts, could provide a useful starting point for this work.
Dr Leena Srivastava, Director and Head, Ashoka Centre for a People-centric Energy Transition (ACPET), Ashoka University.