15 May 2018: Top experts in biodiversity evaluated progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal on life on land (SDG 15) and discussed ways to protect and restore biodiversity, in the lead up to the July 2018 session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). SDG 15 is one of the six Goals for which governments will conduct an in-depth review at the HLPF.

The two-day Expert Group Meeting took place from 14-15 May 2018, at UN Headquarters in New York, US. The event was convened by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and featured in-depth discussions on forests, biodiversity, custodians of the terrestrial ecosystems, wildlife poaching and trafficking, mountains, land and soil, and means of implementation (MOI).

Amy Fraenkel, UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), observed that while all the custodians of other SDGs try to project each Goal as “essential for the achievement of the other ones,” biodiversity is “clearly the linchpin between all of them.” She explained that without biodiversity, we would not exist, let alone develop. Over the two days of exchange, participants often noted the need for:

  • raising the profile of biodiversity and SDG 15 in political discussions across the board;
  • mainstreaming biodiversity in all sectors and across sectors;
  • policy coherence and integration among all relevant sectors and actors;
  • protecting customary land rights and securing land tenure for local populations;
  • community-based management and participatory approaches, in which indigenous peoples and local communities are co-designers;
  • gender mainstreaming in all policies and programmes; and
  • cross-sectoral, cross-departmental, and multi-stakeholder collaboration, including through partnerships.

The experts also called for an increase in efforts that address the drivers of biodiversity loss – efforts that increase agricultural production on existing land, reduce waste, enhance sustainable trade, and change diets towards less meat consumption. Some observed the SDG 15 targets that “expire” in 2020, noting that their replacement could provide an opportunity to create a more unified agenda that halts biodiversity loss by 2030.

Opening the meeting, Eliot Harris, Chief Economist, DESA, underscored the need for evidence-based knowledge to understand the interlinkages between goals and targets and to connect them with action. These interlinkages, he said, should inform priority setting through evaluation of their impacts. However, he cautioned that prioritization needs to be informed by national and local circumstances. Harris also called for adjusting governance structures to build on the interlinkages between goals, and for designing incentives to overcome systemic inertia.

Cristiana Pasca Palmer, CBD Executive Secretary, stressed the need to harness the power of new technologies for biodiversity and to use them to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of nature. Noting that technologies have the potential to transform the way we approach ecosystem restoration, she gave the example of companies that usee drones to determine what species are needed and where, in order to reforest, replant, and restore ecosystems. She also noted the potential of natural technologies to enable countries to fuse nature with technology and build infrastructure with enhanced resilience to climate change. She gave the example of two “sponge” cities in China built on natural infrastructure that confers flood control, water conservation and ecosystem protection.

Tom Brooks, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), noted that, where the SDG targets are related to conservation and actions, the current indicators show progress, while indicators on the state of nature (such as the Red List Index) show a decline. Brooks encouraged better harnessing of multi-purpose indicators that address multiple targets. He also cautioned about trade-offs between the SDGs, emphasizing that “both agriculture and nature need space to take place.”

Noting that the Living Planet Index shows a 58% decline in vertebrate species between 1970 and 2012, Deon Nel, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said it is still physically possible to reverse biodiversity decline even though the world population will reach 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Cristian Samper, President and CEO, Wildlife Conservation Society, gave the example of the tiger population in India, which grew by 276% from 2006 to 2016, while Malan Lindeque, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Namibia, said Namibia is moving some of its rhino population from protected areas to communal areas because the rhino population is doing very well. Maria Rivera, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, cautioned that 76% of wetland species are threatened.

Pierre Boileau, UN Environment, noted that the lack of appropriate regulations and increased populations close to protected areas, especially in conflict-affected zones, are triggers of both poaching and broader biodiversity loss. Samuel Kasiki, Kenya Wildlife Service, identified challenges to wildlife conservation, including: inadequate optimal resources; corruption; human/ wildlife conflict; limited involvement of the private sector; invasive species; and climate change.

Midori Paxton, UN Development Programme (UNDP), said local communities are and need to be at the center of wildlife conservation. John Scanlon, former Secretary-General of CITES, explained that wildlife agencies are not well-equipped to deal with transnational wildlife crime, thus specialized, well-resourced agencies are needed. He noted with concern that the UN Convention on Corruption does not mention illegal trade in wildlife.

Observing that 30-40% of the world’s food-insecure people live in mountains, Andrew Taber, former Executive Director, The Mountain Institute, emphasized the need for business approaches for high mountain conservation.

Deborah Bossio, The Nature Conservancy, said it would be difficult to achieve many of the SDGs without addressing land degradation. She explained that by restoring soils’ organic matter and thus their CO2 sequestration capacity, countries can make contributions to addressing climate change, but only eight National Determined Contributions (NDCs) mention soil. Dan Pennock, Member of the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, added that the soil organic matter stores rain water and increases the resilience of agricultural systems to shocks, thus directly contributing to SDG 2 (zero hunger).

Gertrude Kabusimbi Kenyangi, Executive Director, Support for Women in Agriculture and Environment, Uganda, said SDG implementation needs to recognize indigenous peoples and local communities who are the custodians of terrestrial ecosystems as the rights holders for those ecosystems and not as simple “stakeholders.” She called for respect for traditional knowledge and for market-based mechanisms such as REDD+ to be people-centered. Joji Carino, Forest Peoples Programme, the Philippines, underscored the need to recognize the link between cultural diversity and biological diversity. In many cases, she cautioned, there is more focus, research and knowledge on endangered species than on the local communities and indigenous peoples who are their custodians. She added that biological and cultural diversity together increase resilience to social, environmental, and climate changes. Mirna Ines Fernandez, Global Youth Biodiversity Network, said including anthropologists and communications specialists in project teams is essential for local communities’ acquirement of conservation knowledge.

Nel noted that countries should report their environmental footprint with regards to trade and investment. Samper invited a focus on the interlinkages between urbanization, conservation, and production systems. Eva Mueller, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), recommended intensifying commodity production in place rather than extending the area of production at the expense of forests and biodiversity. Juha Siikamak, IUCN, called for making ecosystem valuation tangible by bringing it at the individual level.

Bob Watson, Chair, Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), recommended applying combinations of regulations, financial incentives, and behavioral change. Francesca Perucci, UN Statistics Division, said data needs to be communicated to policymakers in a relevant and understandable way. Steffen Dehn, International Forestry Students’ Association, stressed the need for supporting youth engagement in innovation for biodiversity. Fraenkel pointed out that the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the CBD in 2020 presents an opportunity to adopt a unified, strong agenda for biodiversity and SDGs, by 2030.

Delivering closing remarks, Marion Barthelemy, DESA, explained that each of the SDGs under review will have a dedicated three-hour session during the first week of the July 2018 HLPF meeting. She said the session on SDG 15, which is scheduled for 13 July, will provide an opportunity to address the interlinkages of SDG 15 with other SDGs, such as gender (SDG 5), water (SDG 6), food (SDG 2) and climate change (SDG 13). She noted that outcomes of the Expert Group Meeting on SDG 15 will set the foundation for the thematic review of SDG 15 and will contribute to the ministerial declaration to be adopted by the HLPF. [Event Website] [Event Programme] [Concept Note] [Background Note] [HLPF Website] [SDG Knowledge Hub sources]