We must enhance environmental policy coherence to meet Sustainable Development Goals – new research

Posted on: 29 March 2021

Sustainable development can be  achieved when economic, social, and environmental needs are fulfilled continuously over time. But economic, social, and environmental policies must be aligned and share common — and not contrasting — goals for this to happen.

Newly published work underlines that many key players still believe policies that focus on economic growth remain the main, and sometimes only, way to improve people’s wellbeing. This is at odds with our growing understanding that our environment plays a huge role in our wellbeing.

Those are the main messages to come from new research, which has just been published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, and which offers some insights into how measuring policy goals needs to change.

First author, Luca Coscieme, who completed the research while working as a Research Fellow in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, said:

“In this way, policies are like team sports — synergies can be created where the whole outweighs the sum of their parts.

“When it comes to Sustainable Development policies, unfortunately, it seems that we still do not know how to assemble a good team that is cohesive and works together. For example, many  components of the UN Sustainable Development Goals policy are working in clear discord, with particular disharmony between the objectives of economic growth versus environmental and social objectives. Achieving some goals is hampering efforts towards achieving others.”

While the overarching goal — to improve human wellbeing equally and by respecting nature’s limits and regenerative capacity — should be clear to all players by now, for some, economic growth remains the main, and sometimes only, way to improve people’s wellbeing.

Mounting evidence, however, rejects this strategy, recognising that people’s wellbeing is multidimensional.

Besides a certain level of economic welfare, a clean and rich environment, good health, enriching social relationships, and a decent amount of free time are just some other essential contributors to overall wellbeing.

To achieve truly sustainable development, and therefore maximise wellbeing for both society and nature, policy – and the associated efforts in research, funding, and investment – need to strike a balance between environmental, economic and social goals. But what if some of these goals are more complex and inherently difficult to achieve?

The newly published study developed new ways to measure the complexity of policy goals and used them to examine the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the European Union.

The researchers found that environmental goals are far more complex and less coherent than economic and social ones.

Luca Coscieme added:

“We found that policy goals on climate change and biodiversity loss are the most complex to define. As these goals are the most urgent to be addressed today, the results of this study demand more focused environmental targets and more and much higher quality biodiversity data.     

“The study provides a pathway to design more comprehensive sets of sustainability indicators with the aim of maximising coherence and orienting more effective policy agendas. In other words, it provides a pathway towards building a cohesive and winning team on SDGs.”