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Conservation Research Institute


This week, the United Nations General Assembly reconvenes in New York for its 73rd session, bringing together the international community to drive progress towards the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From 22-29 September 2018, events around the City and UN Headquarters strive to encourage collaboration and raise awareness of the challenges of SDG implementation and innovations needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs were adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2015. The 17 Goals and 169 related targets unite a wide array of social and environmental issues, including education, health, and biodiversity, with an aspiration to achieve these globally by 2030. The SDGs encapsulate contemporary social and environmental concerns, and increasingly guide the development policies of Governments and corporates worldwide.


The contributions of natural ecosystems to all of the SDGs, and the need for responsible, coherent policy-making mobilized around ecosystem management and the SDGs, are increasingly recognised in high-level discussions including the FAO’s latest State of the World’s Forests (SOFO) Report. To this end, an interdisciplinary team of researchers associated with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) are asking what contributions biodiversity conservation organisations can make to the SDGs. The project, “Unusual Suspects”, examines CCI organisations’ own experiences of biodiversity conservation to consider where potential to deliver the SDGs might lie, and how this might be facilitated. Drawing on project experience of colleagues in Birdlife International, Fauna & Flora International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the International Institute for Environment and Development, this project offers CCI unparalleled linkages between practitioner experience and academic research in environment and development – which is of practical value for conservation practitioners and policymakers.

As part of the “Unusual Suspects” project, the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI) has launched a new, online tool that allows conservation professionals to look at how biodiversity projects can contribute to the SDG targets. The “SDG Tool, which has just been released, was developed by the Department of Geography and funded by the CCI Collaborative Fund for Conservation and the Cambridge ESRC Impact Acceleration Account. The tool provides practitioners with a simple interactive interface which helps to navigate the complexity of the SDG targets and their links with project level interventions.

Recently published research from the UCCRI has also examined the potential of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) projects to make a greater contribution towards SDG targets. Assessing the Progress of REDD+ Projects towards the Sustainable Development Goals, by Charlotte Milbank and Professor Bhaskar Vira (both Department of Geography) and Professor David Coomes (Department of Plant Sciences), shows that REDD+ projects aim to contribute to a broad range of SDG targets, but that progress towards the goals isn’t always monitored and reported. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), a highly visible intervention in global forest and biodiversity conservation, was established under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) nearly a decade ago, and has been recognized as an instrument to help achieve the 2030 Agenda. The UCCRI study, also funded by the CCI Collaborative Fund, used the 17 SDGs and 169 Targets as an evaluative framework to assess a diverse set of REDD+ projects in different stages of their implementation pathway. The exercise revealed the potential synergies between REDD+ and a key component of the contemporary global development agenda.

The study found that the REDD+ projects demonstrate very strong alignment with the SDGs in their stated objectives, aspiring to work on a much broader set of SDG targets than what required by their independent safeguarding auditors. However, despite these high aspirations, few are actively monitoring progress and positive impact against the goals. There is a marked gap between aspiration and reported progress for each project. The study acknowledges that financial and time constraints likely play a role in creating this gap as REDD+ project practitioners face trade-offs between investing funds and time into delivering real social and environmental improvements, as opposed to investing resources into monitoring changes that may take some time to show.

These findings are important, suggesting that REDD+ and other biodiversity conservation initiatives could be very useful vehicles for supporting the SDGs in very diverse settings. Both REDD+ and the SDGs represent aspirational ambitions for the global community, but much of their potential depends on the ways in which these goals are translated into meaningful (and verifiable) local actions.  

Biodiversity conservation initiatives may be the “Unusual Suspects” with real potential to positively support with the SDGs. With the SDGs’ strong emphasis on their interconnectedness, more needs to be done to encourage conservation practitioners to engage with the global agenda in practice. Biodiversity conservation and human development are two sides of the same coin, both contributing to same global development agenda of planetary health and wellbeing.