Post-2015: How to properly address biodiversity?

Development Policy31 Jan 2014Carmen Richerzhagen, Paul Lucas, José González

Safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem services is essential to meet the basic needs of the poor. But how to integrate them in the post-2015 development agenda?

With the first round of stocktaking meetings of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) coming to a close, discussions about the post-2015 development agenda can begin to address the goals’ architecture and the themes that should be included as a goal or target. There is no doubt that many issues that are currently addressed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – such as poverty, education, hunger, drinking water and sanitation – will also be included in the new agenda. But it might not properly address biodiversity and ecosystem services. Biodiversity underpins most ecosystem services that are essential for human wellbeing and poverty eradication, including the provision of food and water and increasing people’s resilience to the impacts of climate change. Especially the poorest people directly depend on properly functioning ecosystems to meet their basic needs. It is therefore of utmost importance that biodiversity and ecosystem services are properly addressed in the post-2015 development agenda. How should this be done?

Three possible approaches

At a recent multi-stakeholder dialogue in Medellin, Colombia, three distinct approaches to integrating environmental issues – including biodiversity and ecosystem services – into the post-2015 development agenda were discussed: 1) maintaining the original set of MDGs, which included “ensure environmental sustainability” under goal 7, but increasing the level of ambition and extending the target year to 2030 (‘MDG+’); 2) adding other relevant issues to the MDGs, such as new standalone goals on biodiversity and ecosystem services, planetary biophysical limits and/or climate change (‘SDG Classic’); and 3) highlighting the cross-cutting character of environmental issues by integrating specific environmental targets into other development goals (‘SDG integrated’).

A comprehensive proposal

These approaches are not mutually exclusive. To properly address biodiversity and ecosystem services, the post-2015 development agenda should combine all three. Such a comprehensive approach builds on the success of the MDGs (MDG+), includes a standalone goal on earth system functioning and/or environmental limits (SDG classic), and integrates goals on poverty eradication and environmental sustainability (SDG integrated).

In order to build on the success of the MDGs, conserving a large part of its goals and targets is important for many countries that have integrated them in national policies (MDG+). This includes many goals and targets related to poverty eradication – poverty, education, health, nutrition, drinking water, sanitation, etc. However, the level of ambition (‘getting to zero’) and the timeframe (2030/2050) of the goals and targets must be revised. Although biodiversity was addressed in the MDGs, it was only one of many targets, fully isolated from other related issues. The target attracted only little attention and was not met. The post-2015 development agenda must include issues that are now acknowledged as relevant, but were inadequately, or not at all, addressed by the MDGs (SDG classic). Ecosystem services were not directly addressed in the MDGs, yet are crucial for sustainable poverty eradication. Furthermore, since the separate goal on environmental sustainability did not lead to an integrated approach to poverty eradication and environmental sustainability, biodiversity and ecosystem services must be mainstreamed in the relevant goals and targets (SDG integrated).

Integrated goals and environmental limits

An integrated approach aligns ecosystem service-related targets with other goals and targets. For example, a goal related to food security also needs specific targets on provisioning services such as water supply, and on regulating services such as controlling erosion or maintaining soil fertility. Integrated goals create joint responsibilities for ministries (for example, agriculture, food and the environment) and thereby promote coordinated policies. They thus allow for addressing trade-offs and promoting win-win solutions within the policy process.

Finally, to achieve global sustainability, some biophysical limits should be established to safeguard essential ecosystem services and biological diversity and to define a safe operating space for humanity. Since such limits are difficult to integrate with goals on poverty eradication, and are potentially left out in an MDG+ or SDG integrated approach, they should be addressed in a standalone goal or be a key part of a goal on life-support systems and environmental or resource limits.

This blog post has also been published on the website of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

Table 1. Pros and cons of each of the three approaches to integrate biodiversity and ecosystem services into the post-2015 development agenda.

MDG+ SDG classic SDG integrated
Role of biodiversity and ecosystem services Similar to MDG7: stop the loss of biodiversity One specific stand-alone goal on biodiversity and ecosystem services Mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem services, by integrating them in other goals and targets
Political viability Probably the most easy variant to get accepted as it is an extension of what has already been agreed It would be hard to include new goals on biodiversity and ecosystem services, as there are many more topics that demand a stand-alone goal Probably more easy than SDG classic, as it adds to other goals, but more difficult than MDG+, as it complicates the goals by diversifying their aim
Environmental effectiveness Potentially, not very effective. The separate and isolated MDG7 has not produced significant results, and there is a clear risk that this will happen again in a similar goal architecture A new sectoral, isolated goal on biodiversity and ecosystem services would probably pose the same risk as what happened with MDG7. However the only way to establish biophysical limits to effectively protect life-support systems would probably be to include a stand-alone goal on this topic Probably the most effective, as biodiversity and ecosystem services are clearly cross-cutting issues, inextricably linked with most other development goals. However, not all essential ecosystem services, nor biological diversity can be integrated with goals on poverty eradication
Ease of implementation Very easy, as it would be a “business as usual” approach, with environmental institutions fully in charge Relatively easy, as environmental institutions are fully in charge. However, these environmental institutions probably need additional expertise to deal with ecosystem services and environmental limits, while these limits need to be scaled to national responsibilities Difficult, as it requires environmental institutions to work in close cooperation with other sectoral institutions (e.g., those in charge of agriculture, health, forestry,…), posing additional difficulties