Sustainability challenges have been often addressed separately, and as one problem gets resolved, others emerge out of nowhere.
Sustainability challenges, though interdependent, have been often addressed separately, and as one problem gets resolved, others emerge out of nowhere. A recent article in Nature Sustainability by an international team of researchers suggests a different way forward: welcome nexus approaches. The study is the first one to explicitly explore the contribution of nexus frameworks to meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The idea is simple: you can’t plan agriculture without considering water and biodiversity issues, while switching to renewable energy sources yield the greatest results with sustainable behaviors in place. Mining plays a critical role in water planning, and every sustainability goal on the list depends on water, food and energy. Moreover, many issues are best understood when considered together from the very start — e.g. climate-water-food-energy and social justice are one of the basic nexuses highly relevant for policy makers, say researchers.
While there is no one agreed nexus framework, there are multiple well-established methods, like material or resource flow analysis, biogeophysical models and environmental justice frameworks, among many others that can be brought together in an interdisciplinary setting and provide complementary insights on a range of issues. To practically realize their potential, the team proposes a systematic procedure that includes formulation of goals, definition of systems and relevant frameworks, analysis of relationships and simulation of nexus dynamics.
Nexus frameworks need to incorporate interactions among multiple sectors, across scales, between different regions, and all of this should be interlinked with the SDGs on the international policy arena. As a result, this can improve collaboration; reduce conflicts, waste and pollution; and ultimately speed up the transition towards sustainable societies. The research team emphasizes the potential of such approaches to uncover and enhance synergies and cascade positive effects across sectors and scales, while revealing and minimizing trade-offs.
Successful cases like the water-energy-food nexus in the Blue Nile or evaluation of water and energy conservation interdependence in Arizona show that such approaches may bring about real benefits — from purely analytical insight to far-reaching changes in the way the whole area is governed. Meanwhile, for an approach to be a good fit for a problem, it is important to apply it when added value is worth the extra effort.
While reasons for optimism are many, numerous challenges remain. Developing such frameworks for a growing global population is not an easy task and will require effective and lasting collaborations among diverse actors with individual goals. Mainstreaming won’t be easy either, as though approaches like blue-green infrastructure planning or integrated climate and energy planning have gained some recognition, most policymakers are still used to putting concerns into separate easy-to-comprehend boxes and solving them separately one by one.
Nexus frameworks need a broader range of expertise, more data, better coordination among sectors and more resources, as well as more interdisciplinary research. Meanwhile, approaching issues at the nexus may give birth to new unexpected holistic solutions, so critically needed for achieving a sustainable and flourishing planet.