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Mapping nature’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals

By Andrea Betancourt, project manager, Luc Hoffmann Institute

Intense debate about the contributions of the natural world to sustainability has been sparked by the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals – and the environment finally being incorporated into global goals alongside social and economic dimensions. Many now agree that achieving the goals requires protecting healthy ecosystems – but exactly how much land does this involve, and what impact will that have on efforts to achieve the other goals? 

There have been many attempts to conceptually map the SDGs against each other and the activities of different sectors such as energy or agriculture, but there have been few attempts to map the goals’ spatial requirements so that the interactions and trade-offs between them can be assessed. 

A group of organisations convened by IUCN, including Conservation International, Ambiotek, King’s College London, UNEP-WCMC and supported by the Luc Hoffmann Institute have taken up the challenge. They are testing different approaches to combining spatial information on agricultural potential, freshwater production from natural ecosystems, irrigation, carbon storage and sequestration, biodiversity, and other values or services to society.

A global map of nature’s contributions to SDG 6 (water) is beginning to emerge. This provides an overview of the areas of the world where nature provides the most benefits to SDG 6, in relation to co-benefits for other SDGs and potential opportunity costs of maintaining land under sustainable use to meet SDG 6 targets. 

For now, the focus of the work is on the spatial requirements of SDG 6 on clean freshwater and sanitation compared to those of other SDGs. Should upland river catchments be maintained as natural forest to support the goals on freshwater, carbon storage and biodiversity? Or should they be converted to agriculture to support the food security goal, or used for carbon capture and storage to support the climate change goal? 

Ambiotek, King’s College London and UNEP-WCMC have been working on mapping the distribution of critical ecosystems and human pressures through the Co$ting Nature web-based tool. With more than 80 global datasets already included, Co$ting Nature is being shared with the SDG community to help understand how and where nature is contributing to the SDGs, particularly SDG 6.

“While nature is essential for achieving the majority of the targets under SDG 6, only one target explicitly references ecosystems, a pattern that echoes across the other SDGs,” said David Hole of Conservation International during one of the project’s recent meetings.

Having a general understanding of nature’s contribution to each of the SDGs will help us identify the area of land, or ‘footprint’, that we need to protect to achieve the goals. 

“Once we have the footprint, we want to be looking at the magnitude of the co-benefits and synergies of that footprint for other SDGs,” said Mark Mulligan of King’s College London. “What percentage of nature’s contributions to other SDGs are we securing, and what are we losing? If we protect an area for water, what other benefits will we get? If we protect land for water provision, what potential agricultural land can we then not be able to use intensively?”

We all hope that this initiative and the resulting spatial mapping of nature’s contributions to SDG 6 will provide a greater understanding of the role that nature plays in achieving global sustainability and, in turn, lead to more holistic policy making.

Luc Hoffmann InstituteMapping nature’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals