Technology, Rebound Effects and SDGs

with David Font Vivanco

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework lacks a systems approach by addressing specific goals as separate elements, typically in isolation from each other. In doing so, the framework overlooks the fact that many of the goals are inherently linked such that progress towards one goal could either hinder or reinforce progress towards others. While linkages are especially common in goals that rely on technological change, the role of technology in mediating SDG linkages remains relatively unexplored. In particular, behavioral or systemic responses that counteract environmental gains from technological change, commonly referred to as rebound effects, could mediate linkages between SDGs and diminish the overall efficacy of SDG strategies. To illustrate the potential of using rebound effects to shed light on hidden barriers for achieving SDGs, we first map both the interlinkages and the technology-reliance of each SDG. We then focus on three goals that are both technology-intensive and highly interlinked - SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), and SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production) - and explore potential implications related to rebound effects. We show that the rebound effect framework is useful not only for confirming known linkages, but also for identifying underlining mechanisms behind conflicting and reinforcing linkages, and matching appropriate management strategies. In addition, applying the rebound effects framework to examine SDGs helps tease out more complex relationships among SDGs such as potential environmental-economic-social trade-offs.

Extent to which each of the sustainable development goals (SDG) relies on technological change, based on the share of goals and targets within each SDG that explicitly require technological change according to the authors’ criteria.

Example of reinforcing and conflicting linkages between sustainable development goals (number within brackets) mediated by rebound effects in response to energy efficiency improvements. Blue and red arrows indicate, respectively, reinforcing and conflicting relationships.