The SDGs speak and we like what we hear

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Image: Dr Zoidberg / Flickr


It is not unusual to hear good ideas on what to do, or not to do, about climate change. The surprise comes when you feel they make sense.

This is the case with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 17 massive goals signed by the United Nations in New York. They speak big and they speak fair: end poverty, reduce inequality, better jobs, and clean up our environment are just some of these goals…

And they speak sense, bringing home the key message that "sustainability" means many things at the same time.

I've just come back from the Plan Vivo Stakeholder Conference, held in Sweden at the end of September. Most people don't know about Plan Vivo but it has been around a long time. It is the first and main ethical carbon standard working with communities, smallholders and the private sector in projects that benefit farmers and promote better management and conservation of ecosystems.

The SDGs provide a great opportunity to align this work into a global agenda, transforming rhetoric into reality at least on three fronts:

  1. A realisation that solutions to climate change must be holistic
  2. A proven approach for delivery based on partnerships, and
  3. A common framework for accountability
Holistic solutions to climate change

"When I look at the SDGs, I feel as if I wrote them myself," said Marc Baker, from Carbon Tanzania. He is part of a group of organisations working with hunter-gatherers and pastoralist communities in Northern Tanzania. Their approach to conservation goes beyond the tree or the lion, putting people and their rights at the centre of the solution.

Pauline Nangonto works with the Ecotrust in Uganda supporting small farmers to restore ecosystems and move towards better land practices that secure food for the family and build resilience to climate change on their farm. Starting with just a handful of farmers in 2003, the organisation now reaches well over 4,000 farmers.

In Nicaragua, Taking Root promotes reforestation and agroforestry systems with small farmers, building resilience and supporting alternative revenues in areas currently suffering from extreme weather changes.

Apart from providing vital benefits for local people, like jobs, cleaner water and biodiversity conservation (so-called 'co-benefits') projects like these also reduce the greenhouse gases emissions that cause climate change. Carefully monitored, these activities are certified and the resulting carbon offsets are sold over the counter in international voluntary carbon markets.

Not business as usual

The private sector plays a pivotal role in these initiatives. They are involved at all stages: from implementing the activities in the farms, managing and overseeing projects, and buying offset credits.

Smallholder farmers are part of the private sector. They produce 70 per cent of the world's food and are actively involved in implementing better agriculture and conservation strategies. According to Pauline, payments for carbon offsets trigger other opportunities for new businesses, such as beekeeping, or running tree nurseries. These activities are especially useful for women as they are not labour-intensive and can fit with other household tasks and childcare.

By diversifying what they do, farmers are able to spread the risks associated to climate change, such as unpredictable rainfall. And this has a direct impact on their quality of life. "I am now a businesswoman. I earn money, and my children go to school," says a farmer in the Trees of Hope project in Malawi.

This message was evident for the managing director of Sigtuna Destination AB in Sweden, Camilla Zedendahl, who visited the Trees of Hope project in Malawi. Sigtuna has been implementing a carbon-neutral policy for several years, which includes buying Plan Vivo offsets from this project.

Voluntary carbon markets allow companies like Sigtuna to align sustainability strategies with their social responsibility agenda in ways that can respond to the responsibilities and commitments set by the SDGs.

"What is good for society is good for business," said Johan Ununger from Saltå Kvarn during the Plan Vivo conference. "A lot of businessmen want to be part of something bigger than themselves, but they don't know how. There's a knowledge gap: 'how do I do it; am I doing it wrong?

Transforming rhetoric into accountability

The good news is that the SDGs can provide an answer, bringing forth a common language that we all understand, from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's high-level UN private sector forum, to communities in the Pacific Islands.

The SDG compass and the Global Reporting Initiative, for example, provide information on measuring, implementing and communicating impacts. All of this information will prove invaluable to inform the development of indicators to measure the SDGs in ways that respond to real life.

The SDGs were signed in New York but their delivery is up to all of us. An exciting outcome of the Plan Vivo conference is a commitment by all partners to actively engage in the implementation and accountability of the SDGs, written and signed by more than 70 people in representation of their organisations in South and North America, Africa, the Pacific Islands, South East Asia, and Europe.

Every long journey begins with a step, and this one has already been taken.

Dr Ina Porras, Senior Researcher (environmental economics) in IIED's Sustainable Markets Group. 


This blog has been reposted from the IIED website.

Image credit: "sustainable cow" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by dr_zoidberg