Lessons learnt from synergies and trade-offs between SDGs at the sub-national scale – Research Brief

The first of two project briefs being developed as part of the ‘’Living laboratories for
achieving sustainable development goals across national and sub‐national scales’ (known for short as the ‘Luanhe Living Lab’) project that is funded by NERC (UK), NSFC (China) and JST (Japan) is now available! The overarching aim of the research is to provide scientifically‐grounded, policy‐relevant information on the synergies and trade‐offs between selected sustainable development goals and targets within the Luanhe River Basin in China.

ISAP* 2020 – Understanding SDG synergies and trade-offs for sustainable, resilient and inclusive development

Thematic Track 4 – 10th November 2020 – 16:30 – 18:00

Our session, Thematic Track 4 “Understanding SDG synergies and trade-offs for sustainable, resilient and inclusive development” is now open for registration from the ISAP 2020 website (https://isap.iges.or.jp/2020/en/tt4.html)

Understanding the synergies and trade-offs between Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is important to ensure policy coherence across sectors and to balance the three dimensions of sustainable development. The COVID-19 pandemic and the evolving global crisis has affected the livelihoods and daily lives of billions of people around the world jeopardising decades of progress in many social and economic areas. There are now urgent calls for a transformative change for building a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive society. The SDGs remain more relevant than they were before COVID-19 in guiding the development towards long-term resilience and sustainability. It is even more important than ever to understand the synergies and trade-offs between SDGs to support the required transformative change. But how do synergies and trade-offs operate and impact on achieving SDGs in 2030? How can existing frameworks, models and tools for the analysis of synergies and trade-offs be improved by incorporating the knowledge from the COVID-19 crisis? How can we use the knowledge and analysis of synergies and trade-offs to support practical policymaking?

The proposed session will address these three questions. Experts from Europe and Asia will provide their knowledge and insights on these issues, and more importantly, they will provide solutions or make suggestions to utilise the knowledge of synergies and trade-offs between SDGs to support the desired transformative change towards the world we aspire to.

*The International Forum for Sustainable Asia and the Pacific (ISAP) is held annually to share information and facilitate diverse discussions on sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific, with the participation of front-line experts and diverse stakeholders from international organisations, governments, business and NGOs. ISAP began in 2009 as an initiative of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and has been organised in collaboration with the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU‐IAS) (co-organiser from 2011 to 2019), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Organisation for Economic Co‐operation and Development (OECD), National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), and many other partners. The Forum has been providing venues for up-to-date discussions with experts and diverse stakeholders from international organisations, governments, business and NGOs and knowledge/information sharing with a wide range of practitioners.

Sustainability Science Special Feature


The sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations on 25 September 2015 are currently driving most development policies globally. With 17 goals, 169 targets, and 232 indicators to monitor and track progress, countries may lose sight of the synergies and trade-offs between goals and between targets, a fact that has been acknowledged from the beginning. To address this concern, approaches are being developed to identify and quantify these synergies and trade-offs. Most of these approaches address the national scale, as it is at this level that the SDGs are to be reported, but synergies and trade-offs are also relevant at the global and sub-national scales where, arguably, less research is underway.

Understanding the synergies and trade-offs between goals and targets is extremely important to (1) minimize trade-offs and maximize synergies, (2) avoid wasting resources, and (3) ensure equitable partnerships and ultimately, equitable development internationally, at the national scale and within countries. Research in this field is rapidly increasing and this is an opportune time to take stock of recent advances.

Scope of this special feature

The proposed special feature will give an opportunity to assess recent progress made in understanding synergies and trade-offs between goals and between targets. The special feature aims to include:

  • new theoretical and conceptual frameworks stemming from different disciplinary and geographic perspectives;
  • recent/emerging debates about the synergies and trade-offs between the SDGs (e.g. how sustainability is related or not to the resilience and disaster risk reduction agendas);
  • new comprehensive approaches and tools that allow for an analysis of synergies and trade-offs;
  • stakeholder and community engagement for raising awareness;
  • case studies of synergies and trade-off analysis and applications.

Deadline, submission, and review process

Please submit extended abstracts (maximum 500 words) to Fabrice.Renaud@glasgow.ac.uk by 30 October 2020. The extended abstracts should include a proposed paper title, the names and affiliations of all co-authors, the email address of the corresponding author, and one sentence indicating which components of the call’s scope the paper aims to address. All this information does not count towards the word limit of the abstract. After review of the abstracts, a selection of proposed papers will be invited to submit full-length manuscripts through the journal’s electronic editorial management system. Notification to all authors will be sent by 20 November 2020. Full paper submission deadline is 31 March 2021.

Author guidelines https://www.springer.com/environment/environmental+management/journal/11625?detailsPage=pltci_728046.

Author information


  1. University of Glasgow, Dumfries, UK – Fabrice Renaud
  2. University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK – Brian Barrett
  3. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Hayama, Japan – Xin Zhou
  4. Loughbourough University, Loughbourough, UK – Lee Bosher
  5. Nankai University, Tianjin, China – Suiliang Huang

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fabrice Renaud.

Renaud, F., Zhou, X., Bosher, L. et al. Synergies and trade-offs between sustainable development goals and targets: innovative approaches and new perspectives. Sustain Sci (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00815-9

October Field Visit

Project partners from the University of Glasgow (Prof Fabrice Renaud (PI), Dr Brian Barrett, Dr Jiren Xu), Loughborough University (Prof Qiuhua Liang, Dr Jiaheng Zhao), Nankai University (China) (Prof Suiliang Huang), and the Institute of Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) (Japan) (Dr Xin Zhou) undertook 10 days of field work in northern Hebei province and Inner Mongolia, China in October. The project team travelled over 1800km and were accompanied by Mr Ho, a local expert on the Luanhe river basin.

The route taken by the project team, starting in Beijing and finishing in Tianjin.

Following the fieldwork, a stakeholder workshop was held at Nankai University in which 14 local and national government representatives participated. The purpose of the workshop was to collate information on the major challenges (social, economic and environmental) and their drivers/in the basin, experiences of flooding or drought events, water pollution events in the basin or in Panjiakou-Daheiting Reservoir, views on ecosystem services and disservices provided by existing and future land use changes, and types of project outputs that they would find most useful to aid their decision making.

Stakeholders and project partners with the UN SDGs

Project Inception Meeting

The inception meeting for the NERC-TaSE River basins as ‘living laboratories’ for achieving sustainable development goals across national and sub-national scales project was held at Nankai University between 7th – 9th May 2019. Partners from the University of Glasgow, Loughborough University, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), and Nankai University were in attendance. A series of opening remarks from the Director of the Office of Scientific Research, Deputy Director of the Office of International Affairs, and the Vice Dean of the College of Environmental Science and Engineering at Nankai University officially opened the meeting, and was followed by a presentation from Mr Jin Xu, program manager of the Division of European affairs, Bureau of International Cooperation of the NSFC.