Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: A just transition case for nature
The Sustainable Development Promise
World leaders in 2015 pledged common action for sustainable development within a broad universal policy agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While committing to address 17 global development challenges, governments of the world made a promise to all people to universally deliver transformation by pursuing a sustainable development pathway.
The SDGs set pace for an era of national action and international cooperation with the ambition to tackle poverty, increase economic growth, meet people’s health, education and social needs while safeguarding environmental integrity and quality.
Nature’s centrality to development and the unfortunate reality
The environment’s centrality to any development process is one that cannot be underrated. Nature is an enabler of economic development. It provides natural capital in the form of natural resources or well put ‘green capital’ to economic processes. From direct provisioning of natural resource materials as inputs to production processes to indirect contributions through ecosystem services such as nutrient recycling, hydrologic flow and climate regulation and that play a facilitative role for economic activities. Moreover, nature has irreplaceable social-cultural benefits.
Natural assets are primary sources of livelihood support and revenue generation. . Developing countries’ economies are based on the natural resource sectors such as agriculture, forestry, tourism among others. For instance, 70 % of Kenya’s employment is based on such sectors with an approximate contribution of 42% to the GDP. Nature has the potential to provide economic and social benefits in addition to environmental benefits.
Unfortunately, the environment has suffered and continues to suffer from unsustainable production patterns and pursuit of economic development that is devoid of environmental limits and integrity. This has been fuelled by prevalent unrecognition of natural capital’s limits and unsupported notion of nature’s possible substitution. It is also driven by the misleading belief that “nature will take care of itself”. Conventional economic systems and development pathways advance over extraction of natural resources from the environment owing as well to increased human consumption. This has strained the environment pushing it beyond its limits. From a justice perspective, one would argue that nature suffers from ‘human induced injustices’.
Attaining Sustainable development – The environmental puzzle at hand
Sustainable development advances increased economic growth and development while realizing environmental sustainability. The sustainable development framework of the SDGs provides a holistic view of development issues placing critical importance on ‘planet’. With ambitious actions focusing on planetary resources within SDGs 6, 12,13,14,15, the framework recognizes that natural capital underpins all development efforts. Therefore, sustainable management of natural resources is the means to social and economic development that ascertains well-being.
The world has a 10-year period to accelerate implementation and achieve the development vision within the SDGs. This massive responsibility cannot be possible in a Business as Usual arrangement. Expecting that the global community delivers on the SDGs within the same economic development pathway (resource intensive, extractive, carbon-intensive, devoid of planetary limits and environmental consciousness) that hurts the environment will result to no meaningful gains.
We have observed over the past years increased environmental footprint that has exceeded annual planetary limits in years such as 2015 and 2017. Presently, the world is in an unsafe ecological reality owing to increasing compromise on planetary boundaries particularly climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle. Human pressure and interference has caused exceeding of boundaries meaning the safe operating space for humanity in respect to the Earth’s system is being compromised. If the environmental sustainability puzzle is left unsolved, our sustainable development future is bleak. Growth, development and people’s well-being will be at risk.
A needed shift – just transition
It goes unmentioned that we are in a critical point where we need to restore ecological balance and reinstate a respectful and just relationship with nature. Moving from unsustainable economies to sustainable ones that pursue environmental sustainability demands a shift away from the conventional development pathway. Just transition envisions a globally pursued economy-wide shift from extractive pathways to regenerative ones that are politically, socially and economically driven and acceptable.
Transformation is required in our economic processes to arrive at a mutually beneficial economy-environment relationship; an ally-hood and non-antagonistic relationship different from what has conventionally been the case. Underscoring the intricacies involved in causing change, just transition places not only peoples’ rights and dignity but also environmental integrity central to the development shift discourse allowing for broader ownership of the transition process.
Just transition bridges political and economic power with social and environmental well-being facilitating an economy-wide shift process that is just, fair, equitable, transparent and accountable. A process able to contribute to economic growth mindful of peoples’ rights to economic freedom within the purview of environmental sustainability – away from environmental degradation, destruction and unwise natural resource use.
Nature based approaches and Just Transition
Nature based approaches and solutions, which are of the broader actions for nature, should be at the centre of all economic and development decisions as they are key in contributing to sustainable development. As noted above, nature provides natural capital used in production processes and provision of ecosystem services that facilitate economic activity. The ability of nature to continually and sustainably provide these demonstrates her health and stability to contribute to sustainable development. It is hence imperative to achieve maintenance, restoration and sustainable use of natural assets and ecosystems. This is only possible through use of ‘nature-based approaches’ to economic development.
Just transition prioritizes moving from an extractive and environmentally destructive economy to a regenerative economy. Essentially, shifting from practices that compromise on environmental health, quality and sustainability at all levels (local to global) and adopting pro-environment approaches to economic development. Just transition is therefore a practical means of securing the place of nature and nature based approaches within economy-wide transformative actions that should get us to a sustainable development reality. It provides an avenue for:
- Advancing sustainable green and regenerative economies
Just transition advances the need for balance between resource use efficiency and resilience of natural resources for systemic health. It further promotes the understanding that economic development is not just about financial benefits but also about circulation of natural capital and the well-being of people. Therefore, important consideration in sustaining economic growth that maintains a balance between profit and environmental health is given through ecosystem conservation, restoration and efficient use of natural resources. Making structural changes to existing economic systems such as production patterns is important to mainstream environmental approaches and domicile nature’s integrity in development. Without such changes to the orientation of our economies, space for driving economy and sector wide environmental solutions remains shrunk in many countries narrowing chances to attain sustainable development.
A shift to a regenerative, green economy that regards natural resource efficiency measures and environmental conservation for optimum economic gain and performance can only happen if:
- There exists adequate “political will” to create the enabling environment for green and regenerative economies to thrive.
- The transition process is not just participatory but captures the voices of the most vulnerable people and tackles social-economic challenges of inequality and resource-wealth distribution
- A rights approach to development initiatives is employed
- The transition facilitates systemic and structural change to continually research, adopt, implement and scale out needed pro-environment innovations
- Needed technical capacity in green and nature based jobs is provided to facilitate employability and advance livelihoods
- Sound environmental protection is central to development policy including in market-based policies to promote nature based solutions.
- Promoting nature-based solutions in addressing climate crisis
Climate change threatens development gains, lives of people and health of ecosystems. Just transition concept facilitates solving of a puzzle on how to shift to a low carbon climate resilient development pathway while taking into cognizance rights and well-being of populations at risk of losing their homestay during such a transition. A key principle to this concept is inclusion and citizen participation to manage sector wide concerns and interests allowing for ownership and mainstreaming of climate transition practices.
Actions for nature have the potential to contribute to a growth consistent with low carbon climate resilient pathway. Climate change increases pressure on ecosystems and threatens extinction through their degradation and destruction.
Nature based solutions advance climate resilience and mitigation. They provide means of tackling climate change, ecosystem and land degradation challenges in an integrated way to achieve long-term sustainability. Upscaling nature solutions that contribute to conservation of ecosystems, address biodiversity loss and degradation and contribute to resilient livelihoods are key in addressing climate change.
Just transition within a nature for climate context is mandated to deliver responsive mechanisms that:
- Restore and preserve nature’s health and dignity for enhanced climate change response
- Underscore and promote rights of communities to land, natural resources and their stewardship role in tackling the climate crisis
- Deliver nature based solutions beneficial to both ecosystems and people without causing any harm
- Ensure nature based solutions contribute to Paris Agreement’s climate targets with supporting evidence and benefit from the global community’s scientific and technological capacity
- Ascertain use of proven nature practices and avoid false nature-climate solutions
Just transition therefore safeguards development and implementation of economy and sector-wide ‘nature for climate’ initiatives that contribute to climate action with sustainable development co-benefits.
Just transition’s facilitative role for advancement of nature based approaches
In a bid to harmonize economic growth with environmental sustainability, it is imperative to underscore that a shift from current business as usual development system needs to be made. Just transition can facilitate this needed shift to a more sustainable and regenerative economy. Getting to such an economy will need strengthening of the place and space of environment in development.
Strengthening of actions for nature and importantly figuring out how they are integrated within economy-wide development practices will be a fundamental need. The latter acknowledges that central to sustainable economies is environmental consciousness and its mainstreaming into development decisions. As such, nature’s sustainability and its ability to sustain development is pegged on a just transition process that:
- Reviews social-economic perceptions contributing to increased environmental footprint and presents counter options for environmentally just societies and economies.
- Interrogates economic factors and drivers that contribute to environmental harm and proposes economy-wide and market based interventions for nature-based approaches.
- Advances socially just and acceptable practices in nature across all sectors of the economy.
- Mainstreams environmentally sound decisions through integration of environmental policy into development processes of the economy.
- Acknowledges the role of increased investments and incentivization for nature-based solutions
- Promotes nature based solutions that: do no harm, are socially acceptable and uphold rights of people, are implementable, innovative and scalable
Policy plays an important role in driving any country’s development agenda. Nature based approaches will require sound policy interventions that enhance their influence and consideration in development decision making processes. Interventions focusing on unearthing green opportunities, aligning human capacities to leverage on such and delivering decent nature based work and quality jobs in line with nationally defined development priorities are vital in driving regenerative economies. They ensure that strong cases for mainstreaming nature into development approaches are built, delivering a critical win in the transition process required to topple over natural resource discriminatory perceptions and practices in economic development.
All economic activity ultimately depends on environmental resource base. A compromise on the environment denies humanity right to economic freedom and sustainable development. Depletion and other unwise use of natural capital may cause irreversible reduction in available natural input curtailing growth and livelihood enhancement.
Just transition provides countries an opportunity to develop sustainably placing worth and value on environment and people. It presents the possibility for a seamless nature- development relationship. In fact, it is the means to realizing justice for people and planet by developing just societies and fairly handling nature through embracing ecoefficiency, conservation and restoration respectively. Economic growth and development is possible while upholding nature’s sustainability. Sustainable development is not devoid of either.
Just transition enables countries to leapfrog from environmentally and socially unjust economies to those that uphold nature’s integrity, rights of the people and well-being of humanity. Therefore, an acknowledgment that only a justly executed transition process from the present emission intensive, unsustainable development pathway to sustainable development can deliver environmental, social and economic benefits is pivotal to this just transition for nature call.
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