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Exploring the Relationship: Nature-Based Solutions and Sustainable Development Goals

Dr. Patrícia Gallo*

In our quest for a better, more sustainable world, we often come across the terms "nature-based solutions (NbS)" and "sustainable development goals (SDGs)." But what exactly is the connection between these two concepts, and why does it matter?

According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nature-based solutions are actions to protect, conserve, restore, and sustainably use and manage ecosystems in ways that address social, economic, and environmental challenges while benefiting human well-being and biodiversity.

But let's break down the concept of naturebased solutions into simple terms.

"Nature-based solutions” refer to the use of nature or natural processes to solve problems or address challenges facing humanity. Instead of relying solely on artificial or man-made approaches, we look to nature for sustainable and effective solutions. For example, if there's a problem with flooding in a city, a nature-based solution might be to create green spaces with trees and plants that can absorb and manage water, reducing the impact of flooding. In agriculture, instead of using only chemicals, we might use natural methods such as planting certain types of crops together to control pests.

Pic Courtesy: UPSURGE Project

The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, are like a global to-do list for making the world a better place. They are a set of 17 goals that countries around the world have agreed to tackle important issues by the year 2030. To put it simply, these goals cover things like ending hunger, making sure everyone has good health, providing quality education, and taking care of the environment. The idea is to make sure that people everywhere can live happy and healthy lives without harming the planet. So, when we talk about the SDGs, we're talking about a shared plan to make the world fairer, more equal, and greener by achieving specific goals in areas that matter to everyone.

It's like one big team effort to create a better future for everyone on the planet.

Synergies: A beautiful partnership

Imagine a world where the goals of sustainable development are achieved hand-in-hand with nature. This is the synergy we strive for. Many NbSs contribute directly to the SDGs. For example, planting trees not only helps combat climate change (SDG 13 - Climate Action), but also supports life on land (SDG 15 - Life on Land) and under water (SDG 14 - Life Below Water). Wetlands, our natural sponges, play a critical role in water purification, benefiting both life on land (SDG 15) and clean water (SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation). By recognizing these connections, we can amplify the positive impact of our actions.

Trade-offs: Striking a Delicate Balance

While the partnership between the NBS and the SDGs is powerful, we must also navigate trade-offs. Sometimes, the pursuit of one goal can inadvertently hinder progress toward another. For example, the production of bioenergy from crops may address the need for clean energy (SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy), but could potentially impact food security (SDG 2 - Zero Hunger). Striking a balance is essential to avoid unintended consequences.

Challenging the Narrative: Concerns on NbS and SDGs

Critics express concerns about the effectiveness of both NbS and the SDGs, focusing primarily on the lack of enforceable mechanisms and clear timelines.

  • The concern is that without robust enforcement mechanisms, the implementation of NbS and the SDGs may lack the necessary accountability, allowing for potential deviations from the stated goals.

  • The lack of specific timelines raises questions about the urgency and commitment required to achieve the SDGs. Critics argue that without specific, time-bound targets, there's a risk of complacency that could hinder progress toward the desired sustainable outcomes.

Another important criticism relates to the unintended consequences of certain NbS initiatives, particularly with regard to the potential displacement of vulnerable communities and the exacerbation of social inequalities. While the goal of NbS is to promote sustainability, critics argue that insufficient attention to social aspects can lead to negative impacts on communities that depend on the ecosystems targeted by NbS interventions.

For example, reforestation projects may result in the displacement of indigenous or local communities that depend on these areas for their livelihoods. This unintended consequence could exacerbate existing social inequalities and disrupt the delicate balance between communities and their natural environment. 

To address these concerns, it is imperative to integrate:

  1. Strong governance frameworks,

  2. Community engagement, and

  3. Social impact assessments into the planning and implementation of NbS initiatives. Enforceable regulations and clear timelines need to be established to ensure that both NbS and the SDGs are not just aspirational goals, but practical, measurable targets that drive tangible positive change.

Raising awareness and taking action

One of the first steps in creating a world where the NbS and the SDGs are in harmony is raising awareness.

Understanding the connections empowers individuals, communities, and policymakers to make decisions that benefit both people and the planet.

We all have a role to play in this symphony of sustainability. Plant a tree, support sustainable businesses, and advocate for policies that prioritize the environment.

Let's embrace the NbS as the allies they are in achieving the SDGs, and work together toward a future where humanity and nature thrive in harmony. By taking small steps today, we are paving the way for a sustainable and brighter tomorrow.

*She is the Course Coordinator for the UNEP/UNESCO/BMUV International Postgraduate Training Program in Environmental Management at the Centre for International Postgraduate Studies of Environmental Management (CIPSEM) at TUD Dresden University of Technology, and Chair of BluoVerda Deutschland e.V.

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