A team of scientists warn that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were designed to reconcile environmental protection with socioeconomic development, are failing to protect biodiversity at their current of implementation. Publishing in the Journal Nature Sustainability, the team says the SDGs, as currently implemented, may actually serve as a smokescreen for further environmental destruction throughout the next decade.

The SDGs, a framework of 17 goals, 169 targets and 247 indicators, were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 to replace the expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 4,5. At their inception, the SDGs were touted as a major improvement over the MDGs, in part because of the integration of the environment across the entire framework.

However, the authors found a stark mismatch between the SDGs and actual progress towards biodiversity conservation.

They assessed countries’ performances on a prescribed set of indicators and compared these indicators against other independent and well-established measures of environmental protection. They found that overall, only 7 percent of correlations between SDG indicators and external indicators of biodiversity and environmental protection were significantly positive. Instead, a larger proportion (14 percent) of these associations are negative and a majority – 78 percent – are non-significant, suggesting that many of these indicators do not adequately reflect progress towards environmental conservation goals.

For example SDG 9.1, the development of quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, cuts across all three pillars of development, but its associated indicators prioritize social and economic issues by focusing on rural population accessibility and passenger or freight volumes without accounting for the harmful environmental impacts of such infrastructure development.

A co-author of the paper, James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and University of Queensland, said: “The SDGs were established as a blueprint for a more sustainable future for all. Yet there are fundamental inadequacies in the ability to protect biodiversity. If these errors are not corrected, the SDGs could unknowingly promote environmental destruction in the name of sustainable development.”

The authors note that globally, threats to nature have accelerated over the past 50 years, resulting in changes to more than 75 percent of the Earth’s surface and population declines in over 1 million species.

Said Watson “With the already growing rates of extreme climate events and threats associated with the burgeoning human population expected to continue to worsen in the coming years, a discrepancy between these trends and the results from the prescribed environment-related SDG indicators is clear.”

The authors suggest that a reformulation of the indicators would be more applicable in a post-2030 agenda. Within the 2030 agenda, a greater focus should instead be placed on data collection and quantification, both temporally and spatially, or the development of more reliable composite indicators within the existing framework.

The lead author of the paper Zeng Yiwen from the National University of Singapore said: “While the SDGs sparked a resurgence in the need to balance economic and social development with the protection of Earth’s natural resources and biodiversity, the data collected by countries would not reflect this balance.”

In addition, greater funding (and incentives) needs to be allocated to countries and regions to aid in the collection of data for applications at finer spatial scales, especially among developing nations.

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is expected to adopt the goals and targets adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity at its next meeting, now postponed to 2021. To address these deficiencies in the SDGs, governments should adopt strong Global Biodiversity Framework, and then work through the UNGA to revise and update the SDGs and indicators accordingly.

Said Sue Lieberman, WCS Vice President for International Policy: “COVID-19 has shown us that we must seriously revisit our fractured relationship with nature, and this work on the SDGs highlights the need to completely rethink our approach to nature, infrastructure, development, and the retention of intact ecosystems—as individuals, governments, and through the multilateral system.”