Why we need a New Deal for Nature and People to achieve the SDGs

By Lin Li — Director, global policy and advocacy, WWF International

© naturepl.com / Juan Carlos Munoz / WWF

With this year’s UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) to review the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) starting next week, it’s timely to reflect on some critical aspects regarding the need for integration in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, from both a pragmatic standpoint as well as a conceptual one.

We are not currently on track to meet most of the goals and targets of the agenda. Take SDG 15 (Life on Land), one of the Goals being reviewed this year, as an example. Global deforestation is actually on an upward trend. Horrifyingly, in 2017 the world lost an amount of forest area equivalent to the size of Italy. This not only impacts wildlife through destruction of habitat, but is a major contributor to carbon emissions and global warming — effecting all living organisms. We need to urgently address such loss of nature because we depend on a healthy natural environment to underpin sustainable and resilient societies, and for our achievement of the SDGs. We need a healthy Planet. Nature deserves a better deal.

Everything is interlinked

From a conceptual standpoint, integration is an approach which recognises that the SDGs build on each other and cannot be separated from each other. It is essential to the success of the 2030 Agenda to take an integrated approach when addressing complicated and interlinked issues for sustainability.

SDG 15 (Life on Land) centres around protecting forests and wildlife. But forest ecosystems also play an essential role in ensuring water availability and quality, storage, flow and filtering, which contributes to SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), not to mention providing us with flood and drought regulation and protection. These services are provided to cities and urban settlements, which contributes to SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). The availability of safe green spaces, including forests, are strongly recognised as fundamental for maintaining the health of human populations, thus contributing to SDG 3 (Good health and well-being).

One of the major drivers of nature and biodiversity loss, and in particular conversion and deforestation, is agriculture. Sustainably managing our forests is therefore inextricably linked to improving the way we grow and produce food (SDG 2 — Zero Hunger and SDG 12 — Responsible Consumption and Production). Climate change is recognised as the single largest threat to development, especially to the poorest and the most vulnerable. While highly impacted by climate change, nature at the same time contributes to mitigating and adapting to it. Restoring and protecting forests enables more carbon dioxide to be absorbed from the atmosphere, and healthy forest ecosystems act as buffers against climate-related hazards and disasters. Both of these contribute to SDG 13 (Climate Action).

We are under great pressure to feed a growing population, limit temperature rises and halt and reverse nature loss. These three demands are potentially competing but they can not be tackled in isolation — efforts to fix one area can actually create problems in another (for instance, converting forests to cropland to meet short-term increases in food production). Trade-offs are inevitable but with integration and coordination a healthy diet, climate and planet is possible.

What we need at HLPF 2018

Each year at HLPF a set of countries report on their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). Reporting to date on environment-related SDGs has been weak. Countries report best on socioeconomic SDGs (e.g. Decent Work and Economic Growth, Health, Education, Gender Equality, Infrastructure). In contrast, reporting on the environmental SDGs 12–15 (Responsible Consumption & Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land) has been particularly weak.

At HLPF we must urge countries, civil society and the private sector alike, to recognise the need for a better deal for the whole planet; a Global Deal for Nature and People to raise the level of ambition and effort to implement the SDGs in a truly integrated manner. This means picking up the pace on environmental SDGs.

We need to act now to address loss of nature

Time is of the essence. Unfortunately the science is undisputable — nature continues to decline at dangerous rates. WWF’s Living Planet Report predicts that by 2020 we could lose two-thirds of global wildlife populations compared to the 1970s. Scientists have described this as Earth’s sixth great extinction crisis. Loss of nature presents risks to human health, economic well-being and global security, including through increased migration of people due to food and water scarcity. Unless we take urgent action to change the course of current trends, the overall success of the 2030 Agenda is in jeopardy.

It won’t be easy, but we need to work together in order to gain the momentum needed to realise a vision of “transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies”.