• charlottemac1

A Sustainable Future - The SDGs Part 3 - A Hierarchy of the SDGs

4th June 2021

The Sustainable Development Goals - https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/news/communications-material/

A Sustainable Future - The SDGs Part 3 - A Hierarchy of the SDGs


Considering the synergetic potential of the SDGs, as well as the factors which determine their impact including the changing behaviours and political climate of any country in question, we must return to our initial question - is there a way we can use the SDGs to achieve the most widespread positive impacts possible?


The answer is complex and has to be considered across many different levels, much like the SDGs themselves.


The formidable power of knock-on positive and negative impacts created from the SDGs cannot be ignored. Additionally, it is clear that some SDGs are more highly linked to each other than others which have limited potential for synergies. Can we use this knowledge to create a hierarchy of the SDGs which ensures that we maximise the positive impacts that we can cause?


Applying a hierarchy to the SDGs that utilises these synergies has been suggested as an approach to be adopted by the EU Parliament in achieving long-lasting sustainability (Niestroy 2016) (European Parliament 2019). Academics have created a number of potential ways to structure the goals in order to create the most positive impact. These include applying a hierarchical structure horizontally (meaning that the SDG links are utilised across multiple sectors at one level e.g. domestically, regionally or nationally) or vertically (cross-scale - the focus of sustainability is moved across multiple levels, e.g. from local levels up to supranational levels (Singh et al. 2019)).

An example of an integrated horizontal approach that organises the SDGs, portrays the goals within three concentric circles. (Figure 1) (LeBlanc 2015) (Niestroy 2016). The innermost circle relates to the ‘social’ SDGs e.g. SDGs 1,3, 4, 5, 10, and is described as the ‘wellbeing circle’.


The ‘wellbeing circle’ relies on the success of the next circle which encompasses the SDGs relating to the production, distribution and delivery of services, namely SDGs 2, 6, 7, 8, 11 and 12. These again depend on the success of the outermost circle which encompasses the natural environment with SDGs 13, 14 and 15. SDGs 16 and 17 act as enabling goals and are outliers.


This theory of linkage emphasises the importance of reaching equilibrium with the rate of resources we extract from the planet (biophysical throughput) that all businesses need to obtain to avoid depleting our natural resources.


Figure 1 - A Hierarchy of the SDGs - Adapted and based on Niestroy (2016)

This integrated horizontal approach doesn’t give a direct answer to where or how we can prioritise, nor does it reflect how this model pairs with financial sustainability or even a timeline over which investment takes place. Rather, it describes how the SDGs interact with each other and shows the cross-sector impacts the SDGs have on each other.


Ordering the goals into a hierarchy or importance may help to create long lasting, positive impact that can spread horizontally or across sectors.


But is a global hierarchy of the SDGs either possible or feasible?


Aside from a horizontal approach as mentioned above, a vertical approach to creating an SDG hierarchy has previously been suggested as a method for achieving sustainability, which looks at the application of SDGs across different levels of scale, for example supranational but within one sector. Even though the UN itself is a supranational entity, this approach fails to acknowledge the different behaviours between countries and within countries at these scales. Merging the vertical and horizontal approaches maximises inclusivity whilst maintaining regional independence.

The horizontal (cross-sector) and vertical (cross-scale) approaches can be further merged with a Nexus methodology[PS1], an approach derived from the 2011 Bonn Nexus conference “Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus - Solutions for the Green Economy”. This methodology suggests that integrated management and governance will guide our journey to sustainability (European Parliament 2019). This approach is not limited to the topics of the conference, rather, it extends to every sector and includes all natural resources.

These hierarchies and synergies should not be compared with trickle-down economics, as the hierarchy indicates the spread of impacts rather than the flow of capital and the positive impacts spread horizontally across sectors as well as potentially vertically.



The synergy between the SDGs is recognised by the impact investment community as the foundation upon which modern impact investment is able to operate on. Singularly doing ‘good’ within one sector, despite still being an achievement, does not necessarily give the impact investment community credibility as being responsible. This is particularly true if significant negative knock-on effects are found as a consequence of the venture elsewhere.


Synergies and trade-offs need to be utilised effectively, and differing priorities and behaviours need to be recognised globally if we are to ever achieve recognisably sustainable outcomes.


Ultimately, all the SDGs are important and were made with equal importance, but their urgency will vary from country to country. The SDGs can and have been academically analysed into a potential hierarchy, however this hierarchy is changeable and could be considered as a guide for investors, investees and organisations on how to achieve the most widespread positive impact.





Wellers Impact is a UK-based, FCA-regulated Impact Investment Manager working to unlock community-focused impact through SDG-focused impact investing. Through innovative investment models that utilise fair economics, Wellers Impact originates investment opportunities across three core business activities; real estate developments in partnership with local land-owning not-for-profits in East Africa, financial support for agriculture firms and supply chains globally through sustainable development finance and direct investment into private water, sanitation and plastics recycling firms globally. Investment involves risk. Suitable for Sophisticated, Professional and High Net Worth Investors only.


Author: Charlotte Macdonald


References

European Parliament, 2019. Europe's approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: good practices and the way forward. Belgium: European Parliament.

Hoff H. 2018 Integrated SDG Implementation - How a Cross-Scale (Vertical) and Cross-Regional Nexus Approach Can Complement Cross-Sectoral (Horizontal) Integration. In: Hülsmann S., Ardakanian R. (eds) Managing Water, Soil and Waste Resources to Achieve Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-75163-4_7

Kroll, C., Warchold, A. and Pradhan, P., 2019. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Are we successful in turning trade-offs into synergies?. Palgrave Communications, 5(1).

Lucas, P., Kanie, N., and Weitz, N. 2016. Translating the SDGs to high-income Countries: Integration at Last? ISSD Sustainable Development Policy and Practice, Guest Article No. 49. Available at: https://www.die-gdi.de/uploads/media/DP_9.2016.pdf

Niestroy, I., 2016. How Are We Getting Ready? The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the EU and its Member States: Analysis and Action So Far. [online] Tulpenfeld: German Development Institute. Available at: <https://www.die-gdi.de/uploads/media/DP_9.2016.pdf>.

PBL Netherlands Environmental Agency, 2012. Roads from Rio+20: Pathway to Achieve Global Sustainability Goals by 2050. [online] Bilthoven. Available at: <https://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/downloads/pbl-2012-roads-from-rio-pathways-to-achieve-global-sustainability-goals-by-2050.pdf>.

Pradhan, P., Costa, L., Rybski, D., Lucht, W. and Kropp, J., 2017. A Systematic Study of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Interactions. Earth's Future, 5(11), pp.1169-1179.

Singh, R., Mal, S. and Meadows, M., 2019. Governance for the Sustainable Development Goals - Exploring an Integrative Framework of Theories, Tools, and Competencies. Sustainable Development Goals Series. [online] Springer. Available at: <http://www.ru.ac.bd/wp-content/uploads/sites/25/2019/03/408_09_00_Monkelbaan-Governance-for-the-Sustainable-Development-Goals-2019.pdf>.

UNDP. 2021. Background of the Sustainable Development Goals | UNDP. [online] Available at: <https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/background.html#:~:text=The%20objective%20was%20to%20produce,tackle%20the%20indignity%20of%20poverty.>.







Wellers Impact is a UK-based, FCA-regulated Impact Investment Manager working to unlock community-focused impact through SDG-focused impact investing. Through innovative investment models that utilise fair economics, Wellers Impact originates investment opportunities across three core business activities; real estate developments in partnership with local land-owning not-for-profits in East Africa, financial support for agriculture firms and supply chains globally through sustainable development finance and direct investment into private water, sanitation and plastics recycling firms globally. Investment involves risk. Suitable for Sophisticated, Professional and High Net Worth Investors only.


Author: Charlotte Macdonald