Are Sustainable Development Goals Incompatible?

The UN adopted a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 to eradicate poverty, establish socio-economic inclusion and protect the environment and our natural resources. Figure 1 presents the 17 SDGs as specified by the United Nations.


Critical voices such as the International Council of Science and International Social Science Council (2015), however, have expressed concerns about potential incompatibility of the SDGs, specifically the incompatibility of socio-economic development and environmental sustainability. They argue that by ignoring the interlinkages, complex dynamics and conflicting relations between the goals there is a risk ”that the framework as a whole might not be internally consistent – and as a result not be sustainable”.

With an interdisciplinary team of researchers from economics, mathematics, sociology and statistics, we quantify and model the alleged inconsistency of SDGs. The researchers are from Stockholm School of Economics and Uppsala University in Sweden, University of Leeds, UK and Virginiatech, USA. Using publically available data on development, economy, politics, social welfare and environment – we analyze which SDGs are conflicting, which are independent and which interact positively.

According to our analyses of the 16 SDG indicators suggested by the UN as measures of the SDGs, we find that the SDGs are not well conceptualized. While the ”End Poverty” goal seems to be a valid construct with good indicators, the ”Social Inclusion” is much weaker in its validity.  Indicators of ”Social Inclusion” like ”Education” are good measures but others like the ”GINI” coefficient (measuring inequality), ”Youth Unemployment” or ”Women Parliament” are weak indicators. ”Environment” seems to be particularly poorly measured by suggested UN indicators. Moreover, the overall model fits also confirm the impression of a poorly specified model for sustainable development.

We measure the extent of inconsistency of the SDGs and conclude that the SDGs will be difficult to attain, unless we have cognizance of how some of the SDGs move in conflicting direction. Exploring the nature of these inconsistencies using data-driven dynamical systems models, reveal that the focus on economic growth and consumption as a means for development underlies the inconsistency in sustainable development. On the other hand, our results also show that there are factors which can contribute to development (health programs, education investment) and ecological sustainability (alternative energy), without necessarily triggering the conflict between incompatible SDGs.

Written by: Ranjula Bali Swain, Visiting Professor at Misum, Stockholm School of Economics and Professor of Economics, Södertörn University. Email:



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