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Understanding links between environment and people is key to sustainable development

The study helps identify connections between the SDGs, for example, maintaining healthy vegetation on watersheds could contribute to up to five of the goals.

A deeper understanding of the connections between the environment and people is crucial to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to a new study.

The study, led by Professor Jörn Scharlemann with colleagues from the School of Life Sciences and the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), is the first of its kind to analyse the interactions between SDGs in relation to how the environment and people affect each other.

It is believed the findings will shape future responses to the SDGs; they could help inform the UN’s Decade of Action on SDGs and the development of the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework by the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Professor Jörn Scharlemann, of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme and School of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex, said: “For some SDGs it has always been evident that we need to consider the ways in which the environment and people affect one another – what we call environment-human linkages. However, here we demonstrate that these linkages actually affect the achievement of the vast majority of SDGs.

“Only ten years remain to achieve all of these goals globally, so there is a growing need to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of action. By understanding the role of the environment and people in how different SDGs relate to and influence each other, it will allow more informed decision-making as we appreciate the trade-offs, overlaps and consequences involved.”

The researchers conducted a cutting-edge, in-depth analysis of how actions to achieve one SDG could influence the progress towards another through human-environment linkages. This included both the services that nature offers to people, such as climate regulation and food provision, and the effects of people on the environment.

The study helps identify connections between the SDGs, therefore highlighting where there is scope for progress on multiple goals simultaneously. For example, maintaining healthy vegetation on watersheds could provide clean water (SDG 6) thereby directly contributing to improving people’s health (SDG 3), while reducing greenhouse gas emissions (SDG 13) and erosion, potentially contributing to food production (SDG 2), while also contributing to protection, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial biodiversity (SDG 15).

A deeper understanding of these linkages can help identify the environmental safeguards that might be needed to reduce the risks of unintended negative environmental consequences - and any resulting impact on people - from some options available for progressing on individual SDGs.

Such risks can then be taken into consideration in national and global policy processes and in actions being delivered around the world to progress on the SDGs.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals were introduced to address global challenges including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

The Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) aims to be a key global centre for delivering ‘Science for the SDGs’ and aspires to be one of the lead organisations in the world providing international, national and local stakeholders with integrated research results.

Towards understanding interactions between Sustainable Development Goals: the role of environment–human linkages is published in Sustainability Science.

This research was part of the Towards a Sustainable Earth Programme, funded by NERC, ESRC and The Rockefeller Foundation.


By: Jessica Gowers
Last updated: Wednesday, 22 April 2020

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