Five questions about Sustainable Development Goals and the potential role of landscapes

Scientists note need for a shift from conservation-oriented perspectives towards increasing integration of poverty alleviation goals.
In May 2013, the U.N. Secretary-General’s High-level Panel recommended five transformational shifts for a new development agenda.

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As the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw approach, it’s time to take stock of the international development framework within which they are contextualized. Here, five key questions are considered:

1. The Background – who was calling for Sustainable Development Goals and why?

In 2015, the anti-poverty targets and indicators that make up the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire. The 2012 U.N. Task Team Report “Realizing the Future We Want for All” assessed the impressive progress made towards achieving the MDGs, although challenges remain regarding achieving certain goals in some countries.

The report also identifies several conceptual shortcomings of the MDGs, most notably their failure to address the environment in an integrated and cross-sectorial manner; the need for some goals to deepen their impact (for example, access to nutritious food instead of just the provision of sufficient quantity); and the challenge of building a partnership for development that does not divide the world into aid recipients and donors, but outlines common but differentiated responsibilities for all.

One concept floated by policymakers — the water-energy-food nexus — aims to generate a sustainable economy and a healthy environment by considering how each of the three elements interrelate and are affected by decision-making. Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) noted in recent research the need for a shift from conservation-oriented perspectives towards increasing integration of poverty alleviation goals.

To better address the connection between persistent poverty and environmental degradation worldwide, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and the United Arab Emirates called for a change of paradigm — from regarding the environment as one among eight silos (MDG 7) independent of the other seven goals to a coherent, overarching concept that views a healthy and productive environment as a cross-cutting issue. These countries submitted their proposal for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the lead-up to the 2012 “Rio+20” U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. The Rio+20 outcome document strengthened this position by giving the mandate for developing SDGs to a U.N. General Assembly Open Working Group of 30 members. In a parallel process, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a “High-level Panel of Eminent Persons” to explore the general framework for a post-2015 Development Agenda.

2. The Process – What stage are we at right now, and what are the next steps?

In May 2013, the U.N. Secretary-General’s High-level Panel submitted its report, recommending five transformational shifts for a new development agenda. One of them calls on the world to “put sustainable development at the core,” a major departure from the MDGs, which dealt only with sustainability in the limited context of a single environment-focused goal. The report also urges countries to forge a “new, global partnership” — highly relevant when we look at the challenges facing the planet today: the adverse effects of climate change, for example, hits countries unevenly and can be tackled only when the world acts collaboratively.

It is important to note that the main task of this high-level panel is to set a framework by proposing general guidelines for the years leading up to 2015. However, the panel did not develop SDGs — this is still a work in progress, and the domain of the U.N. General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG). To this date, the OWG has held four meetings around key issues and discussed, among other things, the conceptual approach of new goals, poverty eradication and land degradation. The next phase of deliberations, ending in February, is built around gathering inputs and advice on core themes from a wide group of stakeholders. The real work of actually designing the SDGs has not yet begun.

3. Landscapes and SDGs – What is the potential of landscapes approaches?

In past meetings on SDGs within the OWG, discussions still treated issues independently from each other: At one meeting, members analyze population dynamics and new consumption patterns; a separate meeting focuses on agricultural production, desertification and land degradation. But the real challenge lies in connecting the dots, to translate previous examples into concrete questions: “How do we feed a population that will reach 9 billion in 2050 without putting too much pressure on our ecosystems? How can quantity and quality of food improve without causing irreversible damage to our planet?” Already, agriculture is estimated to be the main driver of deforestation worldwide. Landscapes approaches that look at different land-based activities offer a way of thinking about the connection between environment and development in an integrated way. Land-based sectors, including agriculture, forestry, fisheries and cities, are crucial to achieving the “Big 5” development aspirations of poverty eradication, food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity conservation and the creation of a green economy. Just as deforestation is not a forestry issue but rather driven by the growing hunger for food and energy, food production is not a purely agricultural topic. Agricultural outputs depend on inputs from other systems: An estimated 75 percent of fresh water, for example, comes from forests that act as giant sponges in the water cycle. So instead of assigning responsibilities based on sectors and specific targets, approaching landscapes at a higher conceptual level can lead to better coordination among competing land uses, so that interrelated goals for sustainable development can be achieved.

4. Setting the agenda – What might a goal on sustainable landscapes look like?

There are several ways to address sustainable landscapes as part of SDGs. One possibility would be a stand-alone goal for landscapes. In order to ensure that this single goal considers different aspects of land uses, it could comprise different targets, each with a certain set of indicators to measure progress. For example, CIFOR’s Director General, Peter Holmgren, recently proposed a landscapes SDG based on four objectives: livelihood provisions; sustained ecosystem services; pollution and resource efficiency; and food and non-food products produced:

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A possible alternative to a stand-alone SDG on sustainable landscapes would be the design of targets that cut across goals: A goal on food security, for example, could be linked to sustainable watershed management.

5. Open questions – What do we still need to learn about landscapes? 

Thinking about a landscapes SDG leads to three issues concerning the measurement design and implementation of such a goal.

In the past, critics referred to the MDGs as “Minimum Development Goals.” What might sound cynical at first is grounded in the reality that the eight goals selected for MDGs were in fact not what most states wanted to agree on, but what they could agree on: data and methods in many countries were simply not as advanced to cover more than these silos. The reality is that governments across the globe work in sectors and that in many developing countries, particularly in remote areas, even basic indicators such as “school completion rates” are not available. The MDGs took what was available — if any development framework can go beyond that, improved data and capacity building for national institutions must be part of the agenda.

Secondly, measuring development outputs across the landscape requires an aggregated design: “Goods” such as job provision and economic growth through land-based sectors must be weighed against the “bads” of pollution and emissions. This is a far more complicated design than previous frameworks.

Lastly, implementation of a combined landscapes goal represents a challenge of its own: Ministries and government institutions aligned to sectors such as “environment,’ “energy” or “agriculture” are still the reality in most countries, and horizontal integration is lacking. This traditional setup is also reflected in the way international institutions are designed and in the way that international agreements dealing with environment and poverty mostly exist in parallel. An integrated goal on landscapes could help overcome these challenges.

As varied as these remaining questions are, the answer to all is the same: We need increased research into the ways in which sustainable landscapes support development and the combined policy solutions that support them.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Ann-Kathrin Neureuther at a.neureuther@cgiar.org

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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Topic(s) :   Community forestry Landscapes Restoration SDGs