Quantifying synergies and trade-offs in the global water-land-food-climate nexus using a multi-model scenario approach

The human-earth system is confronted with the challenge of providing a range of resources for a growing and more prosperous world population while simultaneously reducing environmental degradation. The sustainable development goals and the planetary boundaries define targets to manage this challenge. Many of these are linked to the land system, such as biodiversity, water, food, nutrients and climate, and are strongly interconnected. A key question is how measures can be designed in the context of multi-dimensional sustainability targets to exploit synergies. To address this, a nexus approach is adopted that acknowledges the interconnectedness between the important sub-systems water, land, food, and climate. 

This study quantifies synergies and trade-offs from ambitious interventions in different components of this water-land-fod-climate nexus at the global scale. For this purpose, a set of six harmonized scenarios is simulated with the MAgPIE and IMAGE models. The multi-model approach improves robustness of the results while shedding light on variations coming from different modelling approaches.

Our results show that measures in the food component towards healthy diets with low meat consumption have synergies with all other nexus dimensions: Increased natural land improving terrestrial biodiversity (+4% to +8%), lower greenhouse gas emissions from land (−45% to −58%), reduced irrigation water withdrawals to protect or restore hydrological environmental flows (−3% to −24%), and reductions in nitrogen surpluses (−23% to −35%). Climate mitigation measures in line with the Paris Agreement have trade-offs with the water and food components of the nexus, as they adversely affect irrigation water withdrawals (+5% to +30% in 2050 compared to reference scenario) and food prices (+1% to +20%).

The analysis of a scenario combining all measures reveals how certain measures are in conflict while others reinforce each other. This study provides an example of a nexus approach to scenario analysis providing input to the next generation of pathways aiming to achieve multiple dimensions of sustainable development.


PBL Authors
Jonathan Doelman Elke Stehfest Arthur Beusen Detlef van Vuuren Lotte de Vos Tom Kram
Other authors
Felicitas D Beier
Benjamin L Bodirsky
Florian Humpenöder
Abhijeet Mishra
Alexander Popp
Isabelle Weindl
Willem-Jan van Zeist


Publication title
Quantifying synergies and trade-offs in the global water-land-food-climate nexus using a multi-model scenario approach
Publication date
10 March 2022
Publication type
Publication language
Environmental Research Letters
Volume 17, Number 4
Product number