"Mitigation choices and sustainable development interact in complex ways," Christoph von Stechow of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Germany, told environmentalresearchweb. "For example, our results show how delaying ambitious mitigation efforts lead to higher risks and lower benefits for a whole range of sustainability goals."

However, the team also found that scaling up some low-carbon technologies can also bear sustainability risks. Unsustainable use of bioenergy can bring food and water insecurity, for instance.

"Using fewer amounts of these controversial mitigation technologies implies that some risks are reduced but that others increase, creating challenging risk trade-offs," added von Stechow. "For example, if carbon-capture-and-storage technology is rejected, risks to other sustainable-energy objectives will rise and may turn out to be much more problematic than the risks associated with the technology itself. If mitigation is delayed on top, some crucial socio-economic risks increase dramatically."

To complete their assessment, von Stechow and colleagues from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Technical University Berlin and Hertie School of Governance in Germany, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Graz University of Technology in Austria, and University of Maryland, US, analysed results from the AMPERE inter-comparison of integrated energy-economy-climate models.

The team found that the only two strategies that can reap synergies and minimize trade-offs across all of the sustainability dimensions they looked at were avoiding further delay of ambitious mitigation action, and reducing the growth of energy demand through efficiency gains and "less materialistic lifestyles".

"During the preparation of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, we realized that there is a lot of knowledge on individual risks and benefits of mitigation technologies beyond climate effects but no comprehensive study on how these effects change across different ways to stay below the 2 °C limit," said von Stechow. "We also realized that global-modelling teams calculated a lot of interesting metrics associated with such co-effects that can be linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our study is the first to put alternative 2 °C pathways into the context of the Sustainable Development Goal agenda and to comprehensively analyse how climate action today can affect other sustainability goals in the future."

Climate policy cannot be separated from the sustainable-development agenda any longer, the scientists say. "Despite and because of the complex linkages on global, regional and local levels, climate and sustainability policies need to be monitored so that synergies can be reaped and trade-offs kept manageable," von Stechow explained. "For research, this means that we have to get better at understanding the interactions before the policies are actually implemented and lead to unintended consequences. For policy makers, this means that better co-ordination across different fields of politics is needed: climate policy not only needs to protect the climate, but must also take the larger sustainability picture into account."

Now the team is trying to understand what existing tools can do, through a detailed mapping of sustainable-development goals and modelling capabilities. "Second, we need to set priorities for different research communities as well as decision makers because we risk working on many issues without reaping synergies or, worse, creating new conflicts," said von Stechow. "Third, we urgently need to think about how to effectively communicate important results to contribute to better policies."

The study was reported in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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