As the conservation community celebrates the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the real work begins, says Inger Andersen, Director General of IUCN.
This is a time for jubilation and a collective sigh of relief. The day has finally dawned where we see the environment recognized as integral to economic and social concerns.
The negotiations are complete. Governments have come up trumps in agreeing on a bold and vigorous vision to safeguard the planet and the well-being of all its inhabitants by 2030.
It has been a long journey to reach this point. Since the launch of the World Conservation Strategy in 1980, IUCN and its members have been advocating that environmental health is fundamental to economic health and human well-being. Since then, sustainable development has grown into a household word while momentum has been steadily building towards international cooperation to achieve it.
The precursor to the SDGs, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), were effective in aligning international action under common objectives and mobilizing the necessary resources to achieve them. Good progress was made, particularly in reducing extreme poverty, but we, in our growth and development path, have failed to pay attention to environmental sustainability factors. We are therefore witnessing the environmental consequences of human activity in terms of climate shifts, species losses and ecosystem collapses on a scale never seen before: the arrival of the Anthropocene.
Important lessons were therefore learned from the MDG process, and based on these, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was built. But now we are at the point of departure. It is time to roll up our sleeves. With sustainability and sound environmental management now centre stage, the world will be looking to us – the conservation community – to show the way. We have to prove that there is a way to have our cake and eat it, we can have growth and prosperity without decimating the natural resources that underpin social and economic well-being. But this will require correcting past mistakes. We need to finally bring an end to poverty but in a way that safeguards the natural world on which we all depend.
Our efforts will be bolstered by the fact that nature is woven throughout the 17 SDGs, acknowledging that nature is fundamental to human well-being. A healthy planet is more important now than ever before. Healthy ecosystems provide our growing population with the very underpinning of human existence. And nature's amazingly constructed web of interdependencies provides our food, air and water; the very essence of life on earth. Break that web, and the system is disturbed. Nature will then send us invoices for our careless management of nature's wealth. These will come in the form of floods, droughts, failed harvests, pollution clean-up or worse. While we all appreciate the intrinsic value of nature and its bounty, we also need to appreciate that nature and nature's infrastructure are critical to sustainable growth and development, and to human well-being.
The SDGs acknowledge the critical role that a healthy environment can play in addressing current challenges including poverty, climate change, food and water security, and reducing the risk of disasters. They also outline nature’s role in achieving health, in promoting gender equality and in building more sustainable cities.
The message that investing in nature can generate many benefits and provide cost-effective solutions to society’s problems is one that IUCN and its members have been promoting for many years. We will be taking this message to the climate summit in Paris, and beyond, and hope that governments and others will rally behind it.
Our jubilation is, of course, mixed with a hard dose of reality. The SDGs are achievable but there are mountains to climb and we will need unprecedented cooperation across all sectors of society. This means breaking the silos. The 2030 Agenda is unique in that it is universal – it applies to all countries of the world. It embraces the notion that no country alone can develop sustainably and that the way one country develops inevitably affects others.
The Agenda presents a clear, universal mandate to the world to invest in nature. Local communities have a critical role to play, bringing on board their traditional and Indigenous knowledge. Business is an engine of innovation that must be harnessed. Governments must create the right policies. And civil society must provide the science and knowledge to help monitor progress. We need a holistic approach to tackling complex challenges – we are all responsible for achieving the SDGs and we need a robust global accountability mechanism to hold us to the task.
We are galvanized by this historic moment but let’s not rest on our laurels. As we move from agreement to implementation, our eyes are set on the IUCN World Conservation Congress which is scheduled to take place in Hawaiʻi one year from now. We are already forging new partnerships for action, but the Congress will be a critical milestone on the road to true sustainability. It is where the policy makers meet the implementers. It is where the solutions are showcased. It is where every sector of society – from faith-based groups to business leaders – brings its contribution. Together we will form the blueprint for action; together we have the power to get the job done.