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The Sustainable Development Goals and the systems approach to sustainability


  • Barbier, Edward
  • Burgess, Joanne C.


The authors explore the link between the systems approach to sustainability and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were formally adopted by the UN in 2015. The systems approach depicts sustainable development as the intersection of the goals attributed to three interlinked systems: environmental (or ecological), economic and social. The authors illustrate how each of the 17 SDGs can be characterized as a goal primarily attributed either to the environmental, economic or social system, and as suggested by the systems approach, there may be important tradeoffs in attempting to attain all these goals simultaneously. By adopting standard methods of the theory of choice and welfare under imposed quantities, the authors show that is possible to measure the welfare effects of an increase in the indicator level for one SDG by identifying the tradeoffs that occur with achieving another goal. They present a quantitative assessment of current progress and tradeoffs among the 17 SDGs, using a representative indicator for each goal. They then conduct a preliminary welfare analysis of these tradeoffs through employing the approach developed in this paper. Although this analysis focuses on the potential tradeoffs among SDGs, the approach could also be applied to show complementarities, or "winwins", in simultaneous progress among two or more SDGs. Such an analysis can help in the design of appropriate policy interventions to achieve specific SDGs, minimizing the potentially negative knock-on effects on some goals whilst capitalizing on the positive win-win impacts on other SDGs.

Suggested Citation

  • Barbier, Edward & Burgess, Joanne C., 2017. "The Sustainable Development Goals and the systems approach to sustainability," Economics Discussion Papers 2017-28, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW).
  • Handle: RePEc:zbw:ifwedp:201728

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. World Commission on Environment and Development,, 1987. "Our Common Future," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780192820808.
    2. Pezzey, John C.V. & Toman, Michael, 2002. "The Economics of Sustainability: A Review of Journal Articles," Discussion Papers 10683, Resources for the Future.
    3. United Nations UN, 2015. "Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development," Working Papers id:7559, eSocialSciences.
    4. Lankford, R. Hamilton, 1988. "Measuring welfare changes in settings with imposed quantities," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 15(1), pages 45-63, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Tina D. Beuchelt & Michael Nassl, 2019. "Applying a Sustainable Development Lens to Global Biomass Potentials," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(18), pages 1-26, September.
    2. David Cook & Nína Saviolidis & Brynhildur Davíðsdóttir & Lára Jóhannsdóttir & Snjólfur Ólafsson, 2019. "Synergies and Trade-Offs in the Sustainable Development Goals—The Implications of the Icelandic Tourism Sector," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(15), pages 1-23, August.
    3. Anita Breuer & Hannah Janetschek & Daniele Malerba, 2019. "Translating Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Interdependencies into Policy Advice," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(7), pages 1-20, April.
    4. Odirilwe Selomane & Belinda Reyers & Reinette Biggs & Maike Hamann, 2019. "Harnessing Insights from Social-Ecological Systems Research for Monitoring Sustainable Development," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(4), pages 1-36, February.
    5. Biggeri, Mario & Clark, David A. & Ferrannini, Andrea & Mauro, Vincenzo, 2019. "Tracking the SDGs in an ‘integrated’ manner: A proposal for a new index to capture synergies and trade-offs between and within goals," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 122(C), pages 628-647.
    6. Emilia Conte, 2018. "The Era of Sustainability: Promises, Pitfalls and Prospects for Sustainable Buildings and the Built Environment," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 10(6), pages 1-16, June.
    7. Neumann, Kai & Anderson, Carl & Denich, Manfred, 2018. "Participatory, explorative, qualitative modeling: Application of the iMODELER software to assess trade-offs among the SDGs," Economics - The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), vol. 12, pages 1-19.
    8. Yizhong Huan & Haitao Li & Tao Liang, 2019. "A New Method for the Quantitative Assessment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a Case Study on Central Asia," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(13), pages 1-27, June.
    9. Barbier, Edward B. & Burgess, Joanne C., 2019. "Sustainable development goal indicators: Analyzing trade-offs and complementarities," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 122(C), pages 295-305.
    10. Inonge Mutale & Isabel B. Franco & Masinja Jewette, 2019. "Corporate Sustainability Performance: An Approach to Effective Sustainable Community Development or Not? A Case Study of the Luanshya Copper Mine in Zambia," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(20), pages 1-17, October.

    More about this item


    sustainable development; Sustainable Development Goals; systems approach; tradeoffs; United Nations;

    JEL classification:

    • Q01 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - General - - - Sustainable Development
    • O20 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Development Planning and Policy - - - General
    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis
    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth

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