Our planet needs solutions to halt the decline of biodiversity, pollution of waterways, and to meet the nutrition, education and energy needs of a growing population. Such a call to action is at the heart of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a globally agreed set of 17 goals to guide the international community towards a more just, equitable, healthier, and greener future.
But how do we get there?
We are writing to share a new paper on how ecosystem services — the benefits people receive from nature (think flood protection, carbon sequestration, soil formation or food production) — can contribute to overcoming the sustainable development challenge. While much of human development to date has caused significant degradation to the natural world, in the 21st century we must find development approaches that also support and protect the environment. Nature-based solutions, i.e. interventions which actively manage ecosystems to provide services that benefit people, will become increasingly important to achieve this goal.
We asked over 200 ecosystem and development experts to complete a survey on the capacity and importance of 16 ecosystem services to help reach the SDGs to start building a road map to our 2030 targets. Much like the new paper by Bronson Griscom and others titled “Natural Climate Solutions” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) which quantifies the contribution that nature-based solutions can make to meeting CO2 emission goals, our survey found that there are many pathways through which nature and the functions that it carries out can help us to achieve our development targets, providing a roadmap complete with avenues, highways and junctions, to guide researchers and practitioners in the search for nature-based solutions to achieving the SDGs.
We found that:
• 44 targets underlying the 17 SDG goals focus directly on improving the environment and/or dimensions of human well-being (e.g., health, poverty, nutrition, spirituality) related to the environment. These are key points of entry for nature-based solutions.
• Comparing responses across surveyed experts, we identify a high level of agreement for 178 pathways where ecosystem services could make important contributions to SDG targets. These are avenues where nature-based solutions should be considered amongst the possible interventions during the planning process.
• In many cases, multiple ecosystem services were thought to contribute to achieving a single SDG target. This means that some targets may be junctions where multiple ecosystem service interact. Planners will need to be aware of possible positive and negative interactions between services them when designing any intervention.
• Experts identified food production, water provision, habitat & biodiversity and carbon storage as important ecosystem services for attaining many SDG targets (21, 21, 26, and 14 targets respectively). If balanced well, these cross-cutting services could act a central highways contributing to a number of targets simultaneously.
Navigating the roadmap
Achieving multiple SDGs in tandem requires lateral thinking. The old ways of doing things that kept ideas and people in discipline silos and ministries will not get us where we need to go. In Agenda 2030, while Nature with a capital ‘N’ is safeguarded directly (by SDG 14 (Life Below Water) and 15 (Life on Land), our results indicate that nature with a small ‘n’ may have a role to play in achieving at least 12 SDGs. In order to effectively achieve the SDGs people who don’t normally talk with one another will need to start sitting down together to understand how issues like water provision can be managed to support power, agriculture, sanitation and sea life.
Luckily there are some handy tools that can help us on this journey much like a compass, or nowadays a GPS. New and ever more sophisticated modeling tools are available to assess and map the provision of ecosystem services across landscapes. These tools can help identify where services are being provided, who benefits from them and how they will change with an intervention – nature-based or otherwise. They can also help to weigh potential and unexpected trade-offs between services that can arise with interventions. Reviewing the main ecosystem service models available to planners, we found that many of them are able to quantify ecosystem services important to the SDGs, as well as key interactions amongst them. However, we still lack good tools to assess services (e.g. pest control) and to understand how ecosystems services operate in cities, where 50 percent of the human population are already living.
Gaps in the map?
While not definitive or exhaustive, our paper using expert-opinion attempts to summarize and synthesize the current state of understanding of the ways in which ecosystem services can be linked to multiple dimensions of human well-being as encapsulated by the SDGs. There are still gaps to fill in the road map. Some ecosystem service-SDG interactions were under-evaluated or not evaluated at all by respondents. This does not necessarily mean that they are not important, but potentially that in some cases not enough research has been done to fully understand how they are produced and interact with human needs.
While nature-based solutions can move us in the right direction, socio-institution changes and technology-driven advances will also be need to meet the ambitious targets laid out in the SDGs. We caution only that nature-based and technology-based solutions be considered in parallel and planned in ways that are mutually supportive.
We are excited to share our new paper Distilling the role of ecosystem services in the Sustainable Development Goals and hope it stimulates more debate, research, and practice to move our planet towards a sustainable future.