Research Article: Complex problems and unchallenged solutions: Bringing ecosystem governance to the forefront of the UN sustainable development goals

Date Published: April 22, 2017

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Liette Vasseur, Darwin Horning, Mary Thornbush, Emmanuelle Cohen-Shacham, Angela Andrade, Ed Barrow, Steve R. Edwards, Piet Wit, Mike Jones.


Sustainable development aims at addressing economic, social, and environmental concerns, but the current lack of responsive environmental governance hinders progress. Short-term economic development has led to limited actions, unsustainable resource management, and degraded ecosystems. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may continue to fall short of achieving significant progress without a better understanding of how ecosystems contribute to achieving sustainability for all people. Ecosystem governance is an approach that integrates the social and ecological components for improved sustainability and includes principles such as adaptive ecosystem co-management, subsidiarity, and telecoupling framework, as well as principles of democracy and accountability. We explain the importance of ecosystem governance in achieving the SDGs, and suggest some ways to ensure that ecosystem services are meaningfully considered. This paper reflects on how integration of these approaches into policies can enhance the current agenda of sustainability.

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Without ecosystems, human life is not possible on this planet. This seems to be a simple and obvious statement but all too often it is not taken seriously. Humans continue to forestall taking action to maintain the integrity of ecosystems, secure in the belief that technology and innovation will fix all problems (Keulartz 2012). Based on such ideology, continuous population and economic growths with free markets and globalization is believed to be the only way to live and develop, and this seems politically acceptable even if we admit that we live in a finite world. Recent evidence, however, indicates otherwise (MEA 2005; OECD 2008; Liu et al. 2015). Since humans have evolved into societies, they have increasingly impacted ecosystems worldwide, believing they “control” nature. Industrialization, population growth, and rising consumption have brought new levels of impacts and unforeseen environmental consequences since the Industrial Revolution.

For a long time, it was wrongly believed that poverty was the major and root cause of environmental degradation and that by reducing poverty through programs like the MDGs, environmental issues would lessen (Adams et al. 2004; Pearce 2011). While poverty may contribute to environmental degradation, issues such as land use conversion and degradation, invasive species, and the overexploitation of natural and mineral resources are more serious and insidious (Adams et al. 2004). Overexploitation occurs where corruption, lobbying of some corporations and organizations, and weak environmental policies (or lack of enforcement) enable exploitation of the environment and local communities. It can lead to the implementation of perverse policies, often in the name of economic development (Palmer and Di Falco 2012).

Ecosystems are composed of living and non-living elements interacting together and are the basic structure on which all life on Earth is based. All ecosystems are mediated by societal and cultural actions at multiple scales. Humans with their economic activities, cultures, and religious beliefs have modified ecosystems and altered over 60% of ecosystems (Diaz 2006) and many elements are either degraded or used unsustainably. Ecosystem services are defined as the essential elements that all species, including humans, depend upon for their survival (Vasseur et al. 2002a) or as the benefits people obtain from ecosystems (Costanza et al. 1997; MEA 2005) including provision (e.g., water, food, or raw material); maintenance and regulation (e.g., pollination, water purification, climate regulation, or erosion prevention); and cultural (e.g., recreational, educational, cultural, or spiritual services). Depending on the framework, a fourth category, supporting services (e.g., nutrient cycling, primary production) are considered to include the services necessary for the production of all three of ecosystem services categories (MEA 2005). These sometimes referred to as habitat services help highlight the importance of ecosystems to the provision of habitat for migratory species (De Groot et al. 2002, TEEB 2010). In another widely used classifications—e.g., CICES, the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (see Haines-Young and Potschin 2013), and IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (see Díaz et al. 2015), this category is integrated into the maintenance and regulation category. Ecosystem services represent the backbone of all current and potential economic, social, and cultural growths in any community—rural and urban. Maes et al. (2014, p. 15) state that research should investigate “the multifunctionality of ecosystems for sustaining long-term human wellbeing.” The long-term, sustained provision of ecosystem services is therefore the definitive goal.

Although all 17 SDGs are related, in direct or indirect ways, to ecosystem management and governance, four of them—SDGs 6, 13, 14, and 15—are more directly related. They are critical to achieving the other goals, calling for a new paradigm of ecosystem governance: Goal 6 on water management specifically refers to “protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems” (Target 6.6); Goal 13 on tackling climate change refers to “strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters” (Target 13.1); Goal 14 on the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas, and marine resources refers to “sustainably managing and protecting marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans” (Target 14.1); and Goal 15 on the protection, restoration, and promotion of sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems specifically refers to the “conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services” (Target 15.1) (Fig. 1).

It is clear that the SDGs are intricately connected among themselves and with ecosystem governance, despite being categorized under 17 different goals. Unfortunately, the current way to categorize environment, economy, and society separately does not recognize this interconnectivity hindering effective cross-sectoral action, further contributing to the marginalization of the environmental sector (and very often its social and cultural counterparts) and its crucial role in achieving SDGs. Without a substantial re-framing of governance of the world’s ecosystems that recognizes the foundational role that ecosystems play, it is unlikely that any meaningful progress can be made towards the 17 SDGs. Some countries that have the resources may achieve some of the SDGs, but many LDCs will continue to find them difficult to achieve due to historic destruction and degradation of their ecosystems. Denying the interconnections between overexploitation of fisheries, forests or biodiversity, and poverty or human health, for example, will impede the capacity of countries to move forward on the path of sustainability (Liu et al. 2015). Sustainability is a process that requires that all aspects of the ecosystem, from services to human needs, are considered as one, thereby further making the case for embracing ecosystem governance.

We argue that it is critical to integrate adaptive ecosystem governance into national policies and relevant international conventions. Too many examples show that we are far from reaching sustainability if we maintain the current business as usual model. We have identified a number of major barriers that must be overcome in order to move forward with sustainable development. The integration of ecosystem services and their valuation into an integrated approach to development planning is essential to better understand the complex dynamics of ecosystems and sustainable socio-economic development. Considering the challenges to defining and developing solutions to current (not considering future) problems to be addressed by the SDGs, it is only through an acceptance of ecosystem governance model that we can find more appropriate actions and strategies to solve these problems. Strategies will have to be defined respecting cultural, historical, and ecosystem contexts. It will require a deeper commitment of all communities as well as private and public sectors.




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