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

Jonathan C. Doelman*, Felicitas D. Beier, Elke Stehfest, Benjamin L. Bodirsky, Arthur H.W. Beusen, Florian Humpenöder, Abhijeet Mishra, Alexander Popp, Detlef P. Van Vuuren, Lotte De Vos, Isabelle Weindl, Willem Jan Van Zeist, Tom Kram

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


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 model of agricultural production and its impact on the environment and Integrated model to assess the global environment 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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number045004
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022


  • biodiversity
  • climate change mitigation
  • food security
  • integrated assessment
  • nexus
  • nitrogen budget
  • water use


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