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The Way Forward: How scenario analysis will help countries implement the SDGs

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By Livia Bizikova, July 27, 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended to offer a ‘supremely ambitious and transformational vision’ for our common future till 2030.

They are certainly ambitious: the SDGs cover all key aspects of sustainable development, from improving the well-being of the poorest to transforming production and consumption processes; reducing the use of resources, waste and pollution; combating climate change; and meeting basic needs such as food, health care, education and culture. Unlike their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are applicable to both developing and developed countries. However, what makes the SDGs commendable—the fact that they are so comprehensive and integrative—also presents an unprecedented planning and implementation challenge.

As the SDGs are set to be tabled before the UN General Assembly in September, the question being asked in capital cities around the world is how can we implement the SDGs by integrating them into development plans, policies and programs? Scenario analysis is part of the answer. The term refers to a variety of quantitative and qualitative tools used to project future pathways or back-cast from a preferred end-point. They have been defined as consistent and coherent descriptions of alternative hypothetical futures grounded in past and current trends that can inspire and inform action. Scenarios provide a structured way for envisioning, exploring and improving decisions. They help identify risks and uncertainties and ways of dealing with them at the hypothetical level and thus reduce the likelihood of making expensive mistakes. We have seen increased interest in the use of scenario analysis since the global financial crises in 2008, a testament to the fact that governments and businesses are more concerned than ever about managing risk.

In theory, scenarios can be built around and back-casted from the SDGs as preferred end-points. They can also help explore alternative pathways of meeting targets or assessing the costs and implications of not meeting them. Either way, scenarios can directly support strategy development and implementation planning, bridging long-term perspectives with short-term priorities of electoral cycles.

In practice, applying scenario analysis is both an art and science; it requires tapping into the creativity and imagination of experts and stakeholders and building on facts and evidence gained through technical knowledge from multiple fields. As governments and researchers turn to scenario analysis to help implement the SDGs, the following points should be kept in mind:

  • Qualitative scenarios grounded in current trends will be necessary to integrate diverse aspects of SDGs and to reach out to diverse audiences. Qualitative scenarios are useful for understanding aspects of SDGs that are hard to quantify, for example ensuring equal economic rights and access to basic services for all populations, improved awareness of sustainable management practices, and building resilience. They also provide opportunities for stakeholders that are not trained in quantitative methods to contribute and develop ownership by being engaged in the process. Trends in sustainability indicators, such as water, soil and air pollution, areas of natural habitat, types of industrial and agricultural practices, types of employment and unemployment, can help anchor the qualitative process in common starting points, explain how and why trends changed in the past and taking this into account when estimating the scale of the implementation challenge—both the gap between present conditions and future goals and the time available to close it. Grounding the qualitative process in a quantitative starting point helps avoid developing scenarios entirely detached from reality. 
  • Quantify key aspects of the scenarios to assess potential impacts of SDG implementation.  Based on qualitative storylines, scenarios can be quantitatively modelled, taking both socio-economic and environmental aspects and their interlinkages into account such as impacts of diverse industrial processes, energy sources, agricultural and food systems on jobs, income, land-use change and pollution. Using present indicator values as a starting point such as data on current crop-land, levels of pollution and types of sector in the economy, model-based scenarios can test the impact and implications of implementation decisions. However, based on our recent study analyzing impacts in subsequent time intervals to assess where business-as-usual decisions take us with regard to the targets can require extensive trend and baseline data and modeling efforts which many not be possible at every national and sub-national level. Therefore quantitative scenarios will be more feasible at the regional level and for select countries with good national-level data; the results can then be extrapolated for other countries and areas. 
  • Periodically review and update of the scenarios and related policies. Scenarios in policy processes are often used one-off: they serve as a basis of strategies, but they are not re-assessed as new developments during implementation call for a fresh perspective. However, the implementation of the SDGs represent a major reorientation of development trends and demand innovative and fresh approaches. Therefore, implementation needs to be closely monitored, and scenarios—actually, the implementation measures underlying the scenarios—adjusted based on new monitoring results. This will create a complex planning cycle that would need to be well developed to make the implementation of the SDGs possible.

Moving forward, it will be important to assess current experiences with scenarios in the specific countries and regions and then build on these to explore the ways in which we can implement the SDGs.

Livia Bizikova is director of IISD’s Knowledge for Integrated Decisions program.