Nature's contribution to poverty alleviation, human wellbeing and the SDGs (Nature4SDGs)

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Geography


Agreed in 2015 by all the countries of the United Nations, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and their subsidiary targets and indicators, represent a blueprint for enabling humanity to achieve a more sustainable future, one in which all people are able to flourish in peace and prosperity while still protecting the environment on which we all depend. For the SDGs to succeed, we need to be able to (a) measure the progress of relevant indicators and (b) understand which policies and interventions can effectively lead to progress in different indicators. Governments are now starting to report annually on the set of 230 indicators originally identified. However, there is concern that there may be trade-offs between some of the SDGs, e.g. 1 (no poverty) and 15 (life on land). For example, the 2018 SDG report highlights that, despite progress on many fronts, increasing land degradation - caused by competing pressures for food, energy and shelter - threatens the livelihoods of over 1 billion people.

To turn trade-offs into synergies, it is important to understand the relationship between nature and people's wellbeing and how this varies for different types of people in varied places. In many cases, marginalised people, whether the poorest or women, have different relationships with nature that are not well represented by data aggregated at national level. For example, improvements in national-level food security indicators may hide the fact that the poorest are getting hungrier. Therefore, to fulfil the SDG's overarching aim to 'leave no-one behind', we need to understand how nature-wellbeing relationships are experienced by marginalised groups so that appropriate policies can be put in place that support everybody.

This project will significantly improve our understanding of the complex interactions between people and the environment required to make progress in achieving the SDGs, focusing particularly on SDGs 1 (no poverty), 2 (zero hunger), 10 (reduced inequalities) and 15 (life on land). Our objectives are to: (i) assess the contribution of nature to multidimensional human wellbeing at local level, focusing specifically on the experience of the poorest; (ii) analyse the policies and contextual factors at various scales which drive the observed relationships between nature and wellbeing; and (iii) determine how well local, socially disaggregated nature-wellbeing relationships are reflected in national-level and modelled data used to report on the SDGs. To do this, we will draw on recent data sets from seven projects in the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme and one closely aligned project. These fine-grained social-ecological data sets combine quantitative household survey data with qualitative contextual data from 11 sites in the Global South with varied levels of intervention and degradation.

Combining data from these different sites provides us with the unique opportunity to deliver new insights into the contribution of nature to human wellbeing at local level, and how this is influenced by different biophysical, socio-economic and policy factors. Practically, our cross-site comparison will improve understanding of how key policies (particularly related to conservation and agriculture) affect the nature-wellbeing relationship. Furthermore, by drawing on advances in other projects in which we are engaged, we can review how well the local-level nature-wellbeing relationship is reflected in national-level data, thus providing the basis for improving the choice of sustainable development indicators. Additionally, by engaging with policy-makers in the countries where the original data were collected, and particularly in India - where we will have more in-depth impact activities - this project may contribute to more appropriate environment-related policies and interventions which ensure that no-one is left behind.

Planned Impact

The Nature4SDGs project will have a range of impacts, from the local level at our case study sites, to the national level in our case study countries as well as contributing to the international debate on the SDG indicators. Our impact activities will be supported by an Impact Advisory Group (IAG), consisting of senior national researchers from each of the original projects contributing data to this research. Their role will be to help identify impact opportunities in their countries, such as influencing conservation and agricultural policies and engaging in national-level debates relating to the SDG indicators.

For local-level decision-makers our research will provide new insights into how different local people depend on the natural environment for their wellbeing, and the factors (both institutional and biophysical) influencing these relationships. This kind of information can increase awareness of potential trade-offs (e.g. between some agricultural interventions and the availability of other ecosystem services used by particular groups of people) and therefore support better decisions on a range of environment and development issues, ultimately helping to address poverty and improve food security and human wellbeing in a manner that does not degrade the natural environment. Our local-level impact activities will focus in particular on the two Indian case study sites, where the participation of ATREE in the project enables a closer relationship with local decision-makers and communities.

National-level decision-makers will also benefit by increasing their understanding of which policies and interventions are more likely to lead to trade-offs or win-win outcomes for different groups of people. Given the rural nature of our sites, our findings will be particularly useful in helping to ensure that conservation policies and policies or interventions aiming to intensify use of resources do not have a negative impact on particular societal groups (e.g. the poorest, women, pastoralists). In India, our on-the-ground presence, including employment of a SDG-policy expert, will enable us to reach the policy-making community that is engaged in SDG monitoring in general and specifically those related to terrestrial ecosystems and poverty.

The national and international-level SDG community will benefit from our insights which may highlight dimensions that are currently missed in the level 2 (indicator) specifications of our focal SDGs and thereby support processes to improve the existing indicator set to better measure progress in a way that 'leaves no-one behind'. Our work comparing local-level and nationally reported metrics on the nature-wellbeing relationship may also inform the way in which modelled data can be used for national-level reporting. For example, the project will contribute to improving the Co$tingNature modelling tool, which is currently used by more than 1200 institutions across >140 countries, including for reporting on the SDGs, by evaluating the differences between local perceptions of nature's contribution to wellbeing and nationally reported metrics.


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