Finding solutions to ease pressure on water, land, and energy systems

The IIASA Energy Program (ENE) is pioneering systems analysis tools for analyzing the water-energy-land nexus. Water, land, and energy systems all face pressures. By analyzing interactions between these sectors, researchers can identify multi-sector vulnerabilities to global environmental change, solutions that meet multiple policy objectives, and quantify the cost of implementing multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

ENE continues to develop its well-established capabilities and expertise for understanding the complexities and linkages of the energy, water, and land nexus. A large collaboration, led by researchers from the program has developed a comprehensive framework to assess these interactions under different climate change and socioeconomic development scenarios [1]. Working with scientists from other IIASA programs as part of the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (ISWEL) project, the analysis uses a set of spatial indicators across the energy, water, and land sectors, to identify both sectoral and multi-sector ‘hotspots’–or areas that will face multiple climate and development challenges. The first results revealed that although global hotspot exposure is limited to a relatively small fraction of global land area, the risks to human populations would be large. The increase in exposed population to hotspots almost doubles (from 1.5 to 2.7 billion people) when moving from a global mean temperature increase of 1.5°C to 2.0°C, and increases similarly (from 2.7 to 4.6 billion people) when moving from 2.0°C to 3.0°C.

This analysis focuses on a dimension of climate impacts that is often missing from global assessments–the vulnerability of exposed populations. By using new high-resolution projections of future income levels, this work provides critical guidance into the regions where poverty eradication strategies would provide the largest reduction in vulnerability to climate change.

Other work undertaken within the ISWEL project, estimates the investment required for achieving clean water and sanitation (SDG6) to be between 1.1 to 1.6 trillion US$ per year by 2030 and between 1.5 and 2.1 trillion US$ by 2070 [2]. The costs grow by an estimated 2 to 6% when combined with energy decarbonization pathways consistent with a 1.5˚C climate target due to higher electricity prices under decarbonization and a growing share of electricity-intensive water resources. The analysis reveals that scenarios involving transformation towards sustainable water consumption patterns and energy-efficient water technologies largely avoid increasing water supply costs under combined policy objectives. The methodological developments to do this analysis and develop a reduced-form representation of the water supply sector into the MESSAGE-GLOBIOM integrated assessment model can now also be used for other SDG analysis over different sectors, timeframes, and geographic scales.

The nature of the interactions between SDG7 (energy) and the non-energy SDGs. The relationships may be either positive (left panel) or negative (right panel) to differing degrees. [3]

Working with the International Council for Science, ENE researchers also pioneered a systematic literature analysis to understand whether different SDGs reinforce, or conflict with each other. Using the goals related to “Affordable and Clean Energy” (SDG7) and “Climate Action” (SDG13) as an entry point, the research found that positive interactions far outweigh negative ones, both in number and magnitude [3]. In other words, efforts to achieve one SDG are likely to help achieve one of the others. Another key finding identified energy as one of the most influential SDGs, while meeting the targets related to “Affordable and Clean Energy” were found to have enabling, and in most cases, reinforcing benefits across all other SDGs. Efforts to increase renewable energy sources, for example, reinforces the SDGs on health and wellbeing by ensuring cleaner air and water. On the other hand, if meeting the “Clean Energy” SDG leads to growth in bioenergy, this could compromise the “Zero Hunger” SDG, as there is evidence that bioenergy and food prices are linked. Nonetheless, the scientists agree that achieving “Affordable and Clean Energy” would have enabling and reinforcing benefits for all other SDGs.


[1] Byers E, Gidden M, Leclere D, Burek P, Ebi KL, Greve P, Grey D, Havlik P, et al. (2018). Global exposure and vulnerability to multi-sector development and climate change hotspots. Environmental Research Letters.

[2] Parkinson S, et al. (2018). Balancing clean water-climate change mitigation tradeoffs. IIASA Working Paper, WP-18-005 (2018).

[3] McCollum DL, Gomez Echeverri L, Busch S, Pachauri S, Parkinson S, Rogelj J, Krey V, Minx JC, et al. (2018). Connecting the sustainable development goals by their energy inter-linkages. Environmental Research Letters 13 (3): 033006.

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