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A new study has determined that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that were designed to improve the lives of people and the planet, are failing to adequately protect biodiversity. The researchers warn that these 17 SDGs could actually do more harm to the environment than good.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were designed by the United Nations in 2015, with the aim of prioritising environmental protection and biodiversity conservation as well as human development to ensure a more sustainable future. 

The study compared SDG indicators to a variety of external measures and found that, despite most countries showing promising initiative in progressing towards environmental SDGs, most of them have little correlation with biodiversity conservation and ‘instead better represent socioeconomic development’. The researchers stated that ‘if this continues, the SDGs will likely serve as a smokescreen for further environmental destruction throughout the decade’. 

Only 7% of correlations between the SDG indicators and independent measures of biodiversity and environmental protection were significantly positive, while 14% had a negative relationship with conserving biodiversity and 78% were not significant at all. 

Biodiversity is a vital part of the planet’s wellbeing and threats to it will accelerate the climate crisis and associated extreme climate events. 

“Over the past 50 years, threats to nature have accelerated globally, resulting in changes to more than 75% of the Earth’s surface and population declines in more than one million species,” said Professor James Watson of the University of Queensland, one of the researchers in the study.

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The Sustainable Development Goals 

The SDGs- a framework consisting of 17 goals, 169 targets, and 247 indicators- were established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It was an attempt to mitigate the climate crisis and associated biodiversity loss with a more sophisticated, valid and efficient model. While purporting to have a greater emphasis on sustainable development, the new framework demonstrates the difficulties that coincide with assessing development agendas and whether they actually benefit or protect the environment. The SDGs have been criticised for its failure to record the nuances of complex targets, especially when the environment is concerned.   

The researchers explain that the lack of substantial integration of environmental priorities into countries’ development plans can be attributed to a lack of ‘technical capacity and difficulty in coordinating across administrative silos, especially in developing nations’. This, together with the framework of SDG indicators inability ‘to incorporate telecoupled environmental impacts linked to internal trade’, the current prescribed SDG framework’s efficacy in protecting biodiversity on the global scale remains uncertain. 

Furthermore, the results of the study demonstrate a flaw in the SDG framework: its failure to establish regulations that allow for biodiversity protection. This highlights the important need of including more precise indicators that directly measure the current state of, and threats towards, global biodiversity. The researchers concluded that ‘if these errors are not corrected, the SDGs could unknowingly promote environmental destruction in the name of sustainable development’. 


The researchers suggest that a reformulation of the indicators would be appropriate in ‘a post-2030 agenda’, with a greater focus placed on data collection and quantification- both temporally and spatially- in addition to making the current indicators more reliable. This would ensure a more ‘nuanced evaluation’ of some of the indicators across global assessments, which would help in developing a greater understanding of the environment’s current state. 

Additionally, the researchers stress the importance of funding and the need for incentives across countries and administrative regions in aiding data collection, which can then be used on more precise spatial scales- especially among developing countries who lack necessary resources.  

According to a recent analysis, the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years and they warn that this may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation.  

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is a multilateral environmental agreement that regulates the production and consumption of 100 man-made chemicals referred to as ozone-depleting substances (ODS). 

What Is the Montreal Protocol?

When released into the atmosphere, these chemicals damage the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects humans and the environment from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Adopted on 15 September 1987, the protocol is to date the only UN treaty that has been  ratified by all 197 UN Member states.  

The Montreal Protocol breaks down the consumption and production of different ODS in a step-wise manner with different timetables for developed and developing countries. Under this treaty, all parties have responsibilities regarding the phasing out of the different groups of ODS, the trade of ODS and annual reporting of data, among others. Developed and developing countries have equal but differentiated responsibilities and binding, time-targeted and measurable commitments that they must meet. 

The treaty continues to evolve in light of new developments, and continues to be amended and adjusted. The governing body of the treaty is the Meeting of the Parties, and the parties are assisted by the Ozone Secretariat, which is based at UN Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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The Multilateral Fund

The Multilateral Fund for the implementation of the Montreal Protocol was established in 1991 under Article 10 of the treaty. The fund’s objective is to mainly provide financial and technical assistance to developing country parties whose annual per capita consumption and production of ODS is less than 0.3kg to comply with the control measures of the treaty.

The Multilateral Fund has supported over 8600 projects including industrial conversion, technical assistance, training and capacity building worth over US$3.9 billion. This support towards the developing countries has illustrated that these member states are willing and able to take part as full partners in efforts to protect the environment with the right kind of assistance. In fact, many developing countries have exceeded the reduction targets for phasing out ODS with the support of the Fund. 

Phasing Out HCFCs

Hydrochloroflourocarbons (HCFCs) are gases used in refrigeration and air-conditioning that are being phased out under the Protocol since they contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. They are powerful greenhouse gases; the most commonly used HCFC is nearly 2 000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

In September 2007, the parties of the Montreal Protocol decided to accelerate their phase-out schedules of HCFCs. Developed countries will completely phase them out by 2020, and developing countries are following a stepwise reduction until a complete phase-out by 2030.

Throughout the phase-out process, the parties are encouraged to promote the selection of alternatives to HCFCs that minimise environmental impacts on the climate as well as meeting other health, safety and economic considerations. This encompasses optimising refrigerants, equipment, servicing practices, recovery, recycling and disposal at end of life. 

The Kigali Amendment

Another group of substances, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were introduced as non-ozone depleting alternatives to support the phase-out of CFCs and HCFCs. HFCs are now widely used in air conditioners, refrigerators, aerosols and other products. While these chemicals do not not deplete the stratospheric ozone layer, some of them have high Global Warming Potentials (GWPs) ranging from 12 to 14 000. These emissions are growing at a rate of 8% per year and therefore, urgent action is needed to protect the planet.

The parties to the Montreal Protocol reached agreement on October 15 2006 to phase down HFCs. Countries agreed to add these substances to the list of controlled substances and agreed to gradually phase them out by 80-85% by the late 2040s. Developing countries will follow with a freeze of HFCs consumption levels in 2024 and in 2028 for some nations. 

With the implementation of the Kigali Amendment, the measures to limit the use of HFCs is expected to prevent 105 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, helping to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise by 2100 and contributing significantly to climate mitigation efforts.

Success of the Montreal Protocol

With sustained implementation of the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is estimated to recover by the middle of this century. Without this treaty, ozone depletion would have increased tenfold by 2050 compared to the current levels, and increased rates of cancer; the Protocol is saving an estimated two million people each year by 2030 from skin cancer. 

The parties to the Protocol have phased out 98% of ODS globally when compared to the 1990 levels, contributing significantly to the protection of the global climate system. From 1990 to 2010, the treaty’s measures are estimated to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 135 gigatons of CO2.  

As such, the Montreal Protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environment agreements of all time. With the accomplishment since 1987, the parties of the Protocol provide an inspiring example of what international cooperation can achieve. 

Featured image by: Niall Kennedy

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The Wildlife Trusts has recently reported that prescribing time in nature for those with mental health issues can make significant improvements to their wellbeing. With an ever-growing population and an increasing disconnection with nature, can immersing ourselves in nature improve not only our mental and social wellbeing, but our inclination towards environmental conservation as well? 

The world is rapidly urbanising- already 55% of the global population lives in urban areas, a number projected to rise to nearly 70% by 2050 according to the UN. With that, time spent in nature is often reduced. Research has found that less time spent in nature threatens future conservation efforts – termed the ‘pigeon paradox’. Under the current urbanisation status quo, this means that interactions with urban natures, organisms and ecosystems – pigeons, mice or squirrels, for example- characterise many people’s perception of nature. At the same time, those who are active in conserving the environment most often cite childhood experiences with nature as critical prerequisites for subsequent environmental actions.

The paper bases its ‘paradox’ on the assertion that the future of conservation efforts depends on our current interactions with urban green space, as spending time within nature grows an intrinsic care for it and therefore provides an impetus for its protection. As such, the paper argues for the critical importance of restoring urban ecosystems and promoting urban green spaces for everyone to access: the future of conservation requires it. Bringing the natural world to more of the population in the urban sphere thus has critical importance, both for conservation but also health benefits – particularly as most of us spend 90% of our time indoors.

How does nature affect mental health?

In 2017, The Wildlife Trusts’ report entitled, “The Health and Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering with The Wildlife Trusts” found that amongst those with reported mental health issues, 69% of those who spent time involved in environmental conservation projects felt an improvement during a six week period. Built on by research with Leeds Beckett University and The Wildlife Trusts, social return on investment (SROI) from promoting Wildlife Trusts’ conservation programmes for health benefits was found to generate a return of £6.88 for every £1 invested. Such a result illustrates the imperative need for investments in green spaces in cities as well as in conservation volunteering schemes. Specifically to the UK, this will reduce the burden on the National Health Service and improve daily wellbeing amongst the population. According to Anne-Marie Bagnall, Professor of Health and Wellbeing Evidence at Leeds Beckett University, “The significant return on investment of conservation activities in nature means that they should be encouraged as part of psychological wellbeing interventions.”

Why Nature is Good for Your Mental Health

So, are such ‘nature prescriptions’ set to take off? Academic literature supporting the link between better health outcomes– lower stress, anxiety levels or heart rate– and more time in nature is growing. Nature prescriptions are being slowly introduced in the US and UK. As one of over 150 programmes in the USA, California’s Stay Healthy in Nature Everyday (SHINE) group, takes groups of patients, doctors, and naturalists to local parks each month for a dose of nature. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland has recently launched its partnership with NHS Shetland for ‘Nature Prescriptions’, while ‘Myplace’ in Lancashire, a specialist in ‘ecotherapy’, has found a 100% increase in wellbeing from its attendees. 

The trend seems to be catching on: doctors elsewhere in the UK have been encouraged to suggest that their patients get outside, supported by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford. The centre’s NHS Forest project aims to increase patients’ use of local parks and woodlands near hospitals and health centres. A study from Scientific Reports finds that only two hours per week is needed to reap nature’s calming benefits. One health trend that is popular mainly in Japan and South Korea is Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. Dr Qing Li, a Japanese expert in forest bathing, argues that the traditional Japanese practice- spending intentional time within trees- can promote health, happiness and wellbeing through reducing blood pressure, strengthening cardiovascular systems and boosting creativity. 

The benefits of being in nature
The RSPB’s Nature Prescription Leaflet (Source: RSPB Scotland). 

Nature’s benefits are endless: As artist Andy Goldsworthy says, “We ARE nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” 

More time in nature can improve not only our intrinsic care for it, but also our own health and wellbeing. At the same time, promoting the benefits of nature, particularly in the urban realm, provides a larger incentive for tree-planting and urban garden initiatives– ultimately mitigating climate-related issues. This is one way that cities can work towards achieving Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that focuses on ‘Urban Sustainability’. 

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