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  • Writer's pictureFiona Smith

A natural capital approach to the SDGs: submission on implementing Sustainable Development Goals

Read some key points from Natural Capital Ireland's input into the Public Consultation on Ireland’s Second Implementation Plan for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2022-2024. Our response offers a framework which we believe would assist in more accurately and more holistically assessing the benefits and costs of individual aspects of the SDGs Plan and its overall national impact on the implementation of all goals.

NCI believes that the SDG Implementation Plan is hugely relevant in terms of preserving, restoring and augmenting our natural capital (our biodiversity and ecosystem services), and the frequently unrecognised range of resource values essential to the realisation of all SDGs (as listed above).

The five objectives set out in this second Implementation Plan reflect a whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approach to achieving the objectives of the 17 SDGs. The proposed strengthening of the SDG national implementation and governance structures are welcome, in particular the cross-departmental approach, the inter-departmental working group, improved stakeholder engagement and actions to improve reporting on specific targets and how to achieve them.

The natural capital approach is vital as it makes visible values (both benefits and costs) that are obscured or invisible in conventional evaluations of the economic and environmental impacts of policies across the whole range of human activity.

Natural capital approaches, and natural capital accounting specifically, present a means to support policy and decision-making with a much wider range of analysis/data than that offered by conventional approaches, because it builds in the fullest possible range of environmental – and cultural – costs and benefits in the assessment of any policy.

- It can be used continuously to monitor the full cost-benefit performance of any policy into the future.

- It is deeply concerned with the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The benefits provided by healthy ecosystems to sustainability have long been understood and recognised by the scientific community and in the context of international sustainable development policy. However, to date this reality has not been sufficiently reflected in national policy.

- It is important for national policy to recognise all SDGs are interlinked. Successes in one area of sustainability provide supports for others, with substantial economic, cultural, social and environmental benefits through careful and co-ordinated actions across the SDGs. Conversely, failure to ensure co-ordination - and effective cross-sector, whole-of-government partnerships – for the SDGs will result in missed opportunities, wasted resources and limited success.

While two of the SDGs deal explicitly with biodiversity (SDG 13, Life Below Water, and SDG 14, Life On Land), research has shown that they underpin several other of the global goals and contribute substantially to all 17 SDGs. A large and growing body of research shows that biodiversity-focused SDGs can act as multipliers for co-benefits across all goals.

Incorporating natural capital approaches into the other SDGs is essential to ensuring that the biodiversity-focused SDGs – and all related biodiversity policy and action plans – are achieved. While trade-offs often come into play and must be examined in an open and participatory fashion, grounding such considerations in a natural capital approach, where the essential role of natural capital (biodiversity, ecosystems, and the benefits they provide) in supporting human well-being is placed at the fore, can minimise conflicts and maximise success.

In order to protect, restore and enhance our natural capital, we must first understand the extent and condition of existing natural assets - we must establish a baseline upon which targets for improvement can be set. NCI is a partner on the pioneering EPA-funded INCASE project which is the first project to apply Natural Capital Accounting principles to catchments in Ireland.

Natural Capital Accounting reports across four main sets of ecosystem accounts – extent, condition, services and benefits - and presents a standardised platform to collate information and regularly report on progress in relation to climate actions, biodiversity conservation and restoration, protection of waterbodies, and good environmental practices in general (as identified in cross-sectoral areas such as agriculture, energy, environment, forestry, nature, marine, planning and water supply/use policies).

INCASE is piloting this approach in four river catchments across Ireland, using the System of Environmental Economic Accounting-Ecosystem Accounting), which has been adopted by the UN and is in use by over 90 countries worldwide. The SEEA is a guide to integrating economic, environmental and social data into a single, coherent framework for holistic decision-making. Ecosystem Accounting aims to reorient policies to deliver sustainable development and improved human well-being by measuring and valuing the extent, condition and services of ecosystems as part of the System of National Accounts. We encourage the Department to engage with the Ecosystem Accounts Division of the Central Statistics Office in order to contribute to the task of developing such Irish ecosystem accounts as part of the SDGs Implementation Plan. There is a range of articles, blogs and supporting videos available from the INCASE website.

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