28 April 2014
Working with Nature to Achieve Sustainable Development Goals: An Urgent Imperative
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For almost 15 years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have served as the world's agenda for development.

At the end of 2015, when they were targeted for achievement, the world will again need a guiding agenda.

For almost 15 years, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have served as the world’s agenda for development. At the end of 2015, when they were targeted for achievement, the world will again need a guiding agenda. This time, a wiser agenda will be necessary, one that takes into account the impact of our development on future generations.

Discussions on how to define, design and implement long-term sustainability goals have taken centre stage on the international agenda, with the process for a post-2015 development agenda and the process to agree upon Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set to converge in September. This convergence will be one step to raise the basic standards of development for all while incorporating considerations that were missed in the last set of goals. The aim will be to raise living standards while limiting worldwide pressures on food systems, biodiversity and natural resources.

The Key to “Getting it Right”

Healthy and productive ecosystems are the key to succeeding with sustainable development and staying within planetary limits. Currently, a UN General Assembly Open Working Group is preparing a report on suggested SDGs. Following a year of discussions, the OWG is focusing on 16 focus areas, including: poverty eradication, food security and nutrition, health and population dynamics, education, gender equality and women’s empowerment, water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, industrialization, sustainable cities and human settlements, sustainable consumption and production, climate, marine resources oceans and seas, ecosystems and biodiversity, means of implementation, and peaceful and non-violent societies with capable institutions. In each of these focus areas, a healthy environment (and subsequently healthy ecosystems on a local scale) is necessary for successfully achieving that goal. While some issues might take a more urgent role over environmental concerns, a renewed commitment to developing measurable, workable and focused targets and indicators of achievement will allow the foundational environment element to take its rightful place.

Sustainable development is not possible by addressing the risks and challenges of any dimension in a singular fashion. Environmental, social, and economic opportunities, when combined, can have mutually reinforcing outcomes for sustainable development. Managing and improving this interaction can take several forms, including: environmental (resource use) management, management of human consumption, and output (waste) management. Sustainability necessitates the union of environmental, social and economic considerations. How to achieve this union within the SDGs is still up for debate, but models abound. In June 2012, for the first time, global leaders explicitly recognized ecosystems as the core element in addressing climate change impacts and paving the way toward achieving sustainable development. The world has pioneered nature-based approaches across different regions and has a large opportunity to take the progress it has made to serve as a guide for implementing the SDGs.

Sustainably Developing Agriculture through Ecosystems

Take hunger, for example. There are still 842 million people who go to bed hungry every night. By 2050, an estimated 70% increase in food production is needed to feed the growing population. Despite this need, 40% of the world’s agricultural land is undergoing serious degradation and climate change is expected to arrest crop productivity in many areas. Similarly, pollinator (bee) services are estimated to be worth US$353.6 billion annually but they are severely threatened due to habitat loss.

What this means is that cropland expansion, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, and the propagation of CO2 emission-heavy agriculture, will only compound food insecurity for the poorest. At the same, 75% of the additional food we need over the next decades could be met by bringing the production levels of the world’s low-yield farmers up to 80% of what high-yield farmers get from comparable land. By restoring 2 billion hectares of degraded agricultural land, we could boost food production by up to 79% – or feed up to 2.25 billion people. Ecosystem productivity for food security can be enhanced in a myriad of ways. One approach is agroforestry. Agroforestry incorporates trees into crop fields. The trees provide nitrogen nutrients to the soil sequester carbon and improve yields. This practice substantially reduces the need for fertilizers (therefore reduces costs to farmers), is far better for the environment and improves food security. Based on data from 5 different trial sites in Malawi, yield increases showed an average improvement of 345%. This demonstrates significant and lasting improvement towards food security built upon a sustainable, environmentally friendly approach.

Advancing Gender Equality through Ecosystems

Placing gender equality central to sustainable development through the use of ecosystems can have large benefits for women’s empowerment and employment. An example of this relationship comes from the Makete district of Tanzania, which has experienced serious deforestation. Tree cover is crucial to soil fertility, land slide prevention, carbon sequestration, and as a foundation of watersheds. These issues were exacerbated by a lack of institutional, legislative and fiscal capacity for the effective management of natural resources, and consequently for the stability of the Makete ecosystem. One ecosystem-based project took a unique approach to woodlot conservation by allowing individuals to use the woodlot as collateral for loans to make micro investments in other opportunities after establishing ownership. Disadvantaged women, and in many areas even children, were engaged in the project and educated with knowledge relating to species selection, land management, planting and spacing and on the marketing of woodland products as well as loan acquisition. This empowered both adult women and young girls with educational tools and economic opportunities, and elevated their status within the community.

Generating Decent Livelihoods through Harnessing Ecosystems

Today, over 81 million young people between the ages 18-25 are unemployed globally, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). In North Africa. Youth unemployment is above 25% and ILO projections do not predict a drop in the near future. Similarly, sub-Saharan Africa is at about 12% and by 2017 predictions show a drop of just 1%. In one example of how this situation can be addressed sustainably, a community in Mozambique located where the lower Limpopo River empties into the Indian Ocean addressed its declining fish population, coastal encroachment, and reduced economic opportunity. Taking an Ecosystem-based Approach, the community rehabilitated an invaluable and previously degraded Mangrove to protect the city from coastal erosion, simultaneously improving the health of the ecosystem by fortifying the fishes’ natural habitat. Resource use was also diversified, leading to the creation of three entirely new industries and youth employment for the community: fish farming, crab farming and mangrove conservation. Additionally, the aquaculture now provides for greater food security and oceanic fish populations are recuperating. Four hundred and ninety families are now engaged in new economic activities as a result of the project.

The Way Forward: Working with Nature, Not Against It

By incorporating ecosystem-related targets under the SDGs and developing targets that focus on maximizing the health and productivity of ecosystems, we can repair, advance and sustain the foundation upon which sustainable development depends. Encouraging comprehensive policies and sizable investments in scaling-up the ecosystem-based actions that have already worked offers the first step towards achieving the SDGs. This is an opportunity that the world cannot afford to pass up.

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