Meeting multiple targets for sustainability at the same time comes with numerous trade-offs

Written by Daniel Strain

The world’s countries will face tough choices if they want to achieve several different targets for sustainability, such as reducing their fossil fuel footprints and conserving water, at once.

That is the conclusion of a new study that explored the different options that Australia has for meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – a set of 17 goals that almost 200 nations have signed on to work toward by 2030. The study examined how Australia could meet these goals through changes to its farmlands and livestock ranges. And, researchers discovered, chasing after multiple targets for sustainability can be a precarious affair: In some cases, making progress on one goal, such as storing large volumes of carbon dioxide in biomass and soils, means working against others, such as reducing water use.

To get to the bottom of those trade-offs, the researchers considered a series of possible futures for Australia’s land sector, which includes large swathes of wheat fields and cattle pastures. Based on their calculations, the country met two sustainability goals simultaneously in about one quarter of those pathways and met three goals in only 10% of the options.

The team will publish its findings on 13 April in Nature. The results suggest that individual sectors of society, like agriculture, can’t achieve sustainability on their own – this complex pursuit requires buy-in from all parts of a nation, from cities to the energy industry.

“We really have to be smart about this,” says Brett Bryan, formerly of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia and now a Professor at Deakin University in Melbourne. “If we want to achieve multiple aspects of sustainability, then we need a new kind of science where we take an integrated and detailed look across the whole of the environment and economy. We need to work out across that spectrum how we can actually achieve multiple sustainability targets.”

SOURCE: Future Earth