In a world of 7.5 billion people facing widespread development and environmental challenges, diverse actors are taking action so that all people can attain a minimum standard of well-being without exceeding planetary capacity. Through the UN, goals to support these actions have been set for: biodiversity, through the Aichi Biodiversity Targets; climate change, through the Paris Agreement, and sustainable development, through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Countries have dedicated substantial resources to advance work in these three areas. However, there is an urgent need to accelerate the pace of effective action. According to the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4, pressures on biodiversity will increase until at least 2020. That year represents a leverage point when we will evaluate the achievement of the Aichi Targets, decide on future biodiversity-related targets, and review progress on Nationally Determined Contributions and the SDGs. These interconnected, yet distinct agendas require a range of strategies, capacities, and monitoring and evaluation systems. In many cases, national efforts to address them are divided and suffer trade-offs.

An opportunity to integrate and achieve targets on biodiversity, climate change and sustainable development is through National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs). Currently, this potential is limited due to a lack of NBSAP actions on aligning plans and policies. However, a recent analysis by the UNDP reveals that NBSAP impacts go far beyond just SDG 14 on ‘Life below Water,’ and SDG15 on ‘Life on Land’, and can support effective action on all 17 SDGs. These synergies have strong potential for enhancement by drawing on a resilience thinking approach in NBSAP implementation.

Resilience thinking is about finding sustainable ways to cope with unexpected events and enable humans to thrive.

Resilience thinking is about finding sustainable ways to cope with unexpected events and enable humans to thrive. When changes, disturbances or shocks affect a system, response options are to persist, adapt or transform. Understanding systemic change using resilience thinking can improve the impacts of NBSAPs in a short timeframe. Here, we give examples of how some countries are integrating multiple objectives in NBSAPs, and propose general actions for enhancing this integration and identify some gaps, framed around seven broad principles of resilience:

  • Maintain diversity and redundancy (the more diverse, the more resilient) Gaps in NBSAPs actions include failing to address underlying drivers of biodiversity loss. We recommend developing policies to maintain biodiversity while eliminating perverse incentives, pollution, and illegal activities. This also contributes to achieving ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’ (SDG 16) and ‘Responsible Consumption and Production Patterns’ (SDG 12). For example, Namibia´s NBSAP takes this approach, developing mechanisms for reporting wildlife crime, creating rewards for information and reviewing procedures for prosecutions to restore threatened species and maintain biodiversity and incomes.
  • Manage connectivity (desired effects can spread throughout, while adverse effects can be contained) Most NBSAPs have relatively few actions specifically on connectivity. An opportunity to enhance ecosystem connectivity and ‘Climate Action’ (SDG 13) is the promotion of ‘Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures.’ Likewise, partnerships between different ministries and various levels of government can enhance institutional connectivity and contribute to ‘Partnership for the Goals’ (SDG 17). The Republic of the Congo is supporting ecosystem connectivity in their NBSAP, creating corridors between protected areas for the restoration of degraded ecosystems and a more equitable sharing of the benefits arising.
  • Manage slow variables and feedbacks (shifts in variables that change slowly can be sudden and hard to reverse) Biogeochemical cycles such as the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus are not explicitly included in NBSAPs. We suggest that action to decrease pollution from activities like agriculture can both manage these slow variables and contribute to ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ (SDG 6). For example, Nigeria is working to reduce the agricultural waste and agrochemicals entering wetlands through their NBSAP, thereby managing the cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus and reducing pollution.
  • Foster complex adaptive systems thinking (foster innovation and engage multiple perspectives for addressing systemic issues) Addressing gaps in NBSAPs related to the inclusion of spatial data can foster complex adaptive systems thinking. A recent report from UNDP finds that only some NBSAPs include enough information for decision makers to take action in a spatially-explicit manner. High-quality spatial data – including the knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities – is needed for effective implementation of NBSAPs. This will also contribute to ‘Reduce Inequalities’ (SDG 10) and to SDG 17. Seychelles for example, is mapping information on biodiversity through their NBSAP, allowing for improved policy decisions for conservation and sustainable consumption.
  • Encourage learning (constant learning and re-evaluation of existing knowledge enables us to manage the dynamic systems on which we depend) NBSAPs contain gaps in developing communication and awareness campaigns. The recognition and integration of various sources of knowledge can contribute to solving biodiversity and development issues, also contributing to SDG 10. For example, Botswana’s NBSAP has established community medicinal gardens to maintain traditional knowledge, protect genetic diversity, improve climate resilience, and support healthy communities.
  • Broaden participation (an informed and well-functioning community can create a shared understanding and build resilience) The implementation and evaluation of NBSAPs must be a participatory process that engages diverse constituents in addition to government agencies. Such actions strengthen government capacity to develop, execute and monitor policy instruments that mainstream biodiversity into broader national plans, which will also contribute to achieving ‘Gender Equality’ (SDG 5) and SDG 10. In implementing its NBSAP, Mexico is broadening participation, conducting a participatory process for estimating the implementation cost of NBSAP and designing strategies to fill the financial gaps.
  • Promote polycentric governance systems (multiple governing bodies at different scales interact to make and enforce rules within a policy arena or location) Actions to improve governance are scarce in NBSAPs. We argue that legal support for NBSAPs is fundamental to increase their effectiveness and to achieve SDG 16. For example, Bhutan’s constitution is an example, as it establishes that a minimum of 60% of their territory must be under forest cover for perpetuity.

As demonstrated by the above examples, a resilience thinking approach can contribute to putting NBSAPs into action. Another significant contribution is to show how biodiversity can be mainstreamed into the climate and development agendas. By incorporating these broad principles into future NBSAPs, and into the implementation of those that already exist, we can promote an integrated approach to achieve these interconnected, but distinct objectives.

The UN Development Programme, in partnership with SwedBio at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Pronatura, ECOSUR, NBSAP Forum and The Nature Conservancy invite you to learn more about applying resilience thinking to NBSAP planning and implementation in our upcoming Massive Open Online Course Introduction to Resilience for Development. Click here to learn more and register.