Environment and the Implementation of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda: A Policy Perspective
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The year 2015 was one of connecting the dots in sustainable development, starting with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), which provides a broad framework the international community can use to generate resources to finance sustainable development.

The year 2015 was one of connecting the dots in sustainable development, starting with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), which provides a broad framework the international community can use to generate resources to finance sustainable development.

Then, in September, nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), signaling firm global intent to integrate environmental development with economic and social development. Finally, December saw the adoption of the historic Paris Agreement, which not only commits the world to finally tackling climate change, but provides a high-level climate policy framework for environmentally sustainable growth.

Cumulatively, these global initiatives aim to transform our development models, collectively addressing issues such as hunger, poverty, unemployment, human health, climate change, degraded ecosystems and social inequity, and they should be celebrated for the milestones they are.

But achieving environmentally sustainable, socially & economically inclusive development in an impactful and lasting way will require innovative action on all fronts.

Serious Investment Needed to Achieve the SDGs

Firstly, financing this promising agenda will require serious investment – at least US$1.5 trillion extra annually over the Millennium Development Goals. At the moment, public finance is inadequate for the task.

For instance, large infrastructure in developing areas of Latin America, Asia and Africa – covering transport, energy, water and sanitation, and telecommunication – requires US$689 billion – US$1.28 trillion in incremental annual investment to meet Goals 6, 7, 9 and 11.

On energy alone, Africa will require cumulative investments of up to US$490 billion by 2040 for new electricity generation capacity, and 31% more for an aggressive focus on renewables towards achieving SDG 7 and bringing power to the estimated 621 million Africans who have no electricity access.

To progress in SDG 13 on climate change, the UNEP Global Adaptation Gap Report concludes that the world will need to invest up to US$500 billion annually by 2050 even if the world succeeds in holding global temperature rise to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Innovative approaches, including bringing in private funding, are clearly needed to bridge the funding gaps. But there are other ways to secure the cash injection we need.

Environment and its Contribution to Sustainable Growth

Global processes, including the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the UNEP Inquiry into sustainable financing, buttress the critical perspective that achieving sustainable development will require diversified financing in addition to traditional international public finance. With appropriate policies, the environment can be a significant contributor to the achievement of the SDGs – through direct impacts, but also by allowing the redirection of income lost through environmental degradation.

The amount of money and services nature provides to economies is staggering. For example, between US$235 and US$577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators, a critical ecosystem service. The global cocoa bean crop, valued at US$5.7 billion annually, depends on biodiversity resources, including pollinators such as the cecidomyiid and ceratopogonid midges. Protecting pollinators therefore directly contributes to SDG 2.

In Asia, meanwhile, the economic value of capture fisheries in the Mekong River basin alone is estimated to be between US$1.4 and US$3.9 billion annually. Over 120 million people in the Coral Triangle depend directly on local marine and coastal resources for their income, livelihoods, and food security.

Finally, in Africa, environmental resources account for 77% of total exports and 42% of government revenues, while over 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population depends on forests and woodlands for livelihood. This means environmental resources directly contribute to creating income opportunities at economy-wide and household level, contributing to SDG 1.

However, substantial shares of these environmental resources are being lost. For example, the cost of environmental degradation is US$9 billion annually in the Middle East. In South Asia, the annual economic loss of land degradation due to salinization is estimated at US$1.5 billion. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the economic loss associated with land degradation is estimated at US$68 billion per year. According to UNEP’s Environmental Crime Crisis report, the monetary value of all transnational organized environmental crimes is US$70-213 billion annually. This is income that is lost to nations and instead pocketed by criminal groups.

Environment and the Implementation of the SDGs: A Policy Perspective

Given all of the above, it is clear that environmental assets can contribute towards the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs in financial terms. To achieve adequate capacity in implementing the 2030 Agenda, countries and regions should put in place mechanisms to ensure the efficient management of natural capital, including reversing environmental loss, resource plunder and illicit financial flows.

A policy measure that could be achieved through national actions is, once environmental loss is reversed, prioritizing the allocation of a percentage of environmental-based earnings to sectors that will be highly catalytic in implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Examples include programmes that enhance agro-productivity, and clean energy – two highly potent sectors that are derivatives of natural capital. This could, especially in the developing world, enhance food security and catalyze the development of rural industry, thus creating jobs and income opportunities. This will combat poverty (SDG 1), enhance food security (SDG 2) and expand access to affordable clean energy (SDG 7). This is particularly worthwhile for regions such as Africa, where enhancing productivity of the agro-sector could potentially catalyze achievement of all the SDGs. There are many other examples of specific ways natural capital can contribute to achieving the SDGs across the board in Africa.

By reversing and recouping environmental losses, averaging over US$200 billion annually, this can be injected into high initial cost areas such as healthcare and education, or infrastructure and industrial development. In addition, these funds can be leveraged as seed capital to explore additional large-scale sources from international public sources, such as enhanced official development assistance (ODA) loans or private sources.

A portion of the average revenues that countries earn directly from the environment through export of timber, fisheries, minerals, agro-produce and tourism could be re-invested to boost productivity of highly potent and inclusive sectors. For example, investing in Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) driven agriculture, and its linkage to sustainable commercial value chains, can enhance not only food security with up to 128% yield increases, but enhance farmer incomes, and create jobs, estimated at 17 million jobs in Africa alone, while catalyzing an agro-sector worth US$1 trillion by 2030.

There is no doubt that sustainably managing the environment offers a cost-effective mechanism for implementing the SDGs. What is urgently needed now are strategies to sustainably harness the world’s environmental resources, including appropriate policies and practices to reverse ecosystems degradation and combat environmental crimes, and prioritized allocation of current earnings from environmental resources to catalytic environment-based sectors.

This is, of course, a big task, but one that is worth tackling. If we pull it off, then we will be well on the road to creating a better and more just future for all.

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