#2030WhatAreUDoing? SDG ambassador for the 2018 Lavazza Calendar

“These Goals seem very academic and complicated, so we tried to humanize the data and statistics so everyone could see themselves in the story. […] In my role as cultural provocateur, with this project I have tried to ignite a respectful debate about moral compass, and the importance of good leadership. Because here there’s no negativity, no blame is laid, there’s just energy and passion: and so it’s a positive revolution. These are 17 extraordinary stories, which could be a source of inspiration and become the force leading a community of responsible global citizens, driven by compassion and a deep respect for service.” – Platon

Buddy Icon 1Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being invited as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals ambassadors to feature in the 2018 edition of the Lavazza Calendar, representing SDG8 on Decent Work and Economic Growth due to my role in the Solutions Initiatives team of SDSN Youth. The Calendar’s theme is “2030, What Are You Doing?“, and tries to convey the message that the success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ultimately rests on the skills and vision of real human beings, coming from all countries and sectors of society.

From the Lavazza family to the incredible Platon, all the way to ASviS and my fellow ambassadors, I would like to congratulate everyone who has been involved in the launch of this project. Communicating the vision of the SDGs through the faces of those who are contributing to their implementation is an extremely powerful idea, and can strengthen civil society engagement across the full spectrum of the challenges addressed by the 2030 Agenda.

PS: if you haven’t already, I urge you to check out (and consider supporting) The People’s Portfolio, Platon’s wonderful initiative to use visual language in support of dignity and human rights for all. 


Can the 2030 Agenda change the norm?


Today, the prestigious Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation published my new piece on the role that the Sustainable Development Goals can play in changing the normative work of the United Nations to make it fit for the purpose of implementing the 2030 Agenda.

I am honored to be featured by an organization which seeks to uphold the crucial role of multilateralism in solving today’s complex challenges, in the spirit of a man whom John F. Kennedy once called “the greatest statesman of our century”.

In the article, I argue that in order to transform the UN approach to the development of new norms, it is necessary to understand what the Agenda itself implies for the evolution of international law, and more specifically for the establishment and further specification of sustainable development as a legal principle of integration between economic, social and environmental considerations.

You can read the article here.

The Sustainable Development Goals and international law: legal challenges to the achievement of ‘environmental’ Goals in the 2030 Agenda


Photo Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

On 25 September 2015, Heads of State and Government from the 193 Member States  of the United Nations gathered at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a “comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred set of universal and transformative Goals and targets” which will “stimulate action over the next fifteen years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet”.

In its essence, the outcome document of the UN Sustainable Development Summit (which contains the much-heralded Sustainable Development Goals) delineated a policy framework concerned with mobilizing efforts at the international, national and subnational level around a set of common priorities relating to sustainable development, and by doing so, it then sought to address challenges as diverse and ambitious as ending poverty and hunger, combating inequalities, building peaceful and inclusive societies, promoting human rights, and ensuring the protection of the planet and its natural resources.

From this perspective, the adoption of the SDGs represented an unprecedented effort not only to move away from a development agenda still heavily dominated by a narrow focus on the economic and social components (something which is evident in the design -and failures– of the Millennium Development Goals), but also to positively identify the reciprocal interactions between the various components of sustainable development that must be taken into account by States at the stage of implementation. This effort, in turn, will now require transformative changes in the way all sectors of society deal with the above-mentioned challenges: from the economy to life sciences to law, existing institutions and systems of rules will be called upon to remove the obstacles to sustainable development and actively promote the achievement of the 17 Goals and 169 targets.

As a legal scientist with strong interests in the field of the environment, I believe that legal regimes are particularly bound to interact with the 2030 Agenda, and that ensuring a mutually supportive relationship between them will be necessary if human development is to stay within the Earth’s planetary boundaries in the next fifteen years and beyond. While I will explore this topic more in depth in an upcoming journal article which I am currently writing with Professor Riccardo Pavoni of the University of Siena (Italy), here I want to highlight the important governance function that international environmental law can play in the implementation of the ‘environmental’ goals and targets contained in Resolution 70/1. In fact, on the one hand, as recently maintained by the UNEP, violations of international environmental law “have the potential to undermine sustainable development and the implementation of agreed environmental goals and objectives at all levels”. On the other, international environmental law constitutes the normative backbone of many (possibly all) of the SDGs, in the sense that institutional and legal developments in the field of the environment can either “foster” or “frustrate” such goals, and that the development of innovative legal approaches, coupled with increased stakeholder engagement, is necessary to accommodate environmental protection concerns in the operationalization of the 2030 Agenda.

Indeed, it seems prohibitive to outline all the potential challenges that international environmental law will have to address in order to enable a mutually supportive relationship with the post-2015 development framework. Moreover, it could be convincingly argued that the underlying problem in this respect will remain the lack of integration between international environmental law and different legal regimes, with a strong emphasis on areas such as trade and investment law and human rights. At the same time, it appears possible, when examining the content of the 2030 Agenda in the context of other recent developments both in the activities of the UNGA and generally in international environmental law, to pinpoint at least some of these recurring challenges. Pavoni and I hold nine of them to be particularly important. More specifically, four are concerned with substantive issues (broadly corresponding to SDGs 12-15) while the rest mainly relates to procedural elements, means of implementation, and shortcomings in the general architecture of international environmental law.

The four substantive challenges are: (i) swiftly implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change and ensuring that commitments contained in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) of the Parties remain ambitious on a pathway to the decarbonization of the economy by 2050; (ii) developing a new regime for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as currently mandated by Resolution 69/292 of the General Assembly; (iii) strengthening integration within international environmental law by promoting the definition of linkage-based plans, policies and programmes, with a particular focus on the widespread adoption of an ecosystem-based approach to environmental protection, increased consideration of the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, and the role of environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws; and (iv) advancing a holistic approach to the management of chemicals and waste under existing international conventions and developing new multilateral agreements on the subject, where needed. Taken together, these challenges continue to highlight major gaps in international environmental law, and addressing them would also mean achieving concrete progress around at least five critical planetary boundaries, including climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, and introduction of chemicals, nanomaterials, and other novel substances.

The remaining topics emphasize the need to further advance key procedural norms and to strengthen the means of implementation in legal regimes in the field of the environment. Most of them reflect long-standing normative trends in the development of international environmental law, while others represent relatively new topics lying at the intersection of law and policy which must increasingly inform the development of multilateral environmental agreements and the evolution of already existing institutions and regimes. They are: (i) harnessing foreign direct investment, official development assistance, and domestic finance for environmental protection, including through further promotion of the role of market-based instruments such as payments-for-ecosystem-services schemes (PES), consistent with the vision outlined in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda; (ii) increasing capacity-building in, and technology transfer to developing countries in order to operationalize the global indicator framework and, more generally, foster conservation and sustainable use efforts (i.e. in terms of establishment, management and effective monitoring of protected areas); (iii) reinforcing science-policy interfaces and bolstering the role of intergovernmental platforms in building capacity for the effective use of science in law- and decision-making at all relevant levels (i.e. in terms of the assessment and accounting of the economic value of ecosystem services); (iv) enhancing public participation in decision-making and access to justice and information as an indispensable component in the implementation of the procedural and substantive environmental rights of individuals and communities, as most recently urged at Rio+20; and (v) advancing liability regimes at the domestic and international level (but also, more generally, non-compliance procedures), particularly by moving away from the traditional rules of State responsibility in favor of more stringent civil liability rules.

It should be noted that it was not by chance that I reserved these two essential aspects for last. On the one hand, despite the message contained in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, progress on the topics of public information and participation and access to justice remains uneven, held hostage by geographical differences in the way human rights are being re-considered, translated into law and interpreted from an environmental perspective. As a consequence, it will be important to ensure that ambitious regional achievements on this topic, such as the Aarhus and Espoo Conventions, which provide for key procedural rights in the field of the environment, inform significant developments in other parts of the world. On the other hand, more than 20 years after the proclamation of Rio Principle 13 on liability and compensation, the emergence of rules of strict State liability and civil liability regimes in domestic legislation and/or multilateral environmental agreements continues to be undermined by the conflicting perspectives of States on issues such as the very definition of environmental damage, the role of the State in redress, the burden of proof, the scope of compensation, the limits of liability, and so forth. That these problems were carefully ignored in the drafting of the SDGs (not to mention the specific provision excluding liability and compensation contained in paragraph 52 of the decision adopting the Paris Agreement) bears further testimony to the steep task placed upon international environmental law in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

[Use the following citation when quoting from the article: Riccardo Pavoni and Dario Piselli, ‘Sustainable Development Goals and International Environmental Law: Normative Value and Challenges for Implementation’ (2016) forthcoming]

#KnowYourGoals – A Campaign for the SDGs

Twitter_headerLast July 28th, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Youth Network announced ‪#‎KnowYourGoals‬ – a global campaign to bring awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to communities all over the world!

In partnership with oikos and Project Everyone, #KnowYourGoals calls upon everyone – organisations and individuals – to host an event during the month of September.

The aim of these events will be to explore the SDGs and most importantly, WHY they are important. SDSN Youth will host the events on its website and provide you with all the resources you need to make your event a success!

Find out how you can participate by visiting http://www.sdsnyouth.org/knowyourgoals.

Comments on Goal 9 of the UNSDSN draft report Indicators for SDGs

An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development
SDSN Leadership Council, An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development (2013)

After the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network unveiled its Action Agenda for Sustainable Development in June 2013, suggesting ten operational priorities for the post-2015 development agenda and proposing 10 goals (the so-called Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs) with 30 associated targets to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) , intensive work has been conducted by the 12 Thematic Groups in order to identify proper indicators to help monitor and assess progress in the implementation of those goals. The result of this process is Indicators for SDGs, a new draft report which “presents an integrated framework of 100 indicators within the framework of the goals and targets proposed by the SDSN”. Public consultation has been encouraged at all levels to improve the draft version, and the deadline for submitting comments extended to March 28, 2014. You can find the draft report here (but also tweet about it using #indicators2015).

In this broader context, University of Siena has decided to take part in the discussion, drawing up a document of suggestions and observations aimed at integrating the SDSN report, to which professors and researchers within the Ne.S.So. board all contributed according to their respective areas of interest, and to which I also participated with a set of proposals focused on possible indicators for Goal 9 (Secure Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity, and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources). The comments I wrote were included with some modifications and cuts in the submitted form, as a result of the excellent assembly work completed by Prof. Simone Bastianoni and his group (Ecodynamics); nonetheless, I am pleased to share an extended version of my personal contribution (one that includes some background and a few explanations on the points made), as we all wait for the final version of ‘Indicators for SDGs’ which will hopefully take our proposals into account. Don’t forget, I look forward to hear from you about it.

1. Goal 9 of the SDGs

Within the proposed Sustainable Development Goals and Targets, Goal 9 is concerned with “securing ecosystem services and biodiversity, and ensuring good management of water, oceans, forest and natural resources”. If pursued effectively, this goal basically requires that “biodiversity, marine and terrestrial ecosystems of local, regional, and global significance are inventoried, managed, and monitored to ensure the continuation of resilient and adaptive life support systems and to support sustainable development”, in accordance with the Aichi Biodiversity targets. At the same time, it implies that “water and other natural resources are managed sustainably and transparently to support inclusive economic and human development”1.

Goal 9 is also partitioned in 3 separate but interconnected targets:

Target 9a) Ensure resilient and productive ecosystems by adopting policies and legislation that address drivers of ecosystem degradation, and requiring individuals, businesses and governments to pay the social cost of pollution and use of environmental services.*

Target 9b) Participate in and support regional and global arrangements to inventory, monitor, and protect biomes and environmental commons of regional and global significance and curb trans-boundary environmental harms, with robust systems in place no later than 2020.

Target 9c) All governments and businesses commit to the sustainable, integrated, and transparent management of water, agricultural land, forests, fisheries, mining, and hydrocarbon resources to support inclusive economic development and the achievement of all SDGs.*

As stressed by the Action Agenda for Sustainable Development, a specific goal devoted to the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services it provides is justified by the fact that “ecosystems, such as rainforests, mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands, drylands, and grasslands underpin human life on Earth, through provisioning services (e.g. food, clean water, energy, medicines), regulating services (e.g. climate, air quality, pollination, coastal storm protection), support services (e.g. soil formation), and cultural services (e.g. educational, religious, tourism)”2, 3. Today, such ecosystems are almost everywhere experiencing processes of heavy degradation, caused by pollution, eutrophication, climate change, overharvesting of resources and so on, while biodiversity loss is occurring at an unprecedented rate in the history of life on earth; a profound modification in the management and governance of the way mankind interacts with these support systems is thus needed to ensure sustainable development challenges are met throughout the four traditional dimensions of this concept (see fig.1).

Fig.1: Contribution of Goal 9 of the SDGs to the four dimensions of sustainable development. Adapted from SDSN Leadership Council (2013) An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development

However, it is not to be forgotten that substantial linkages exist between Goal 9 and the other SDGs, and especially Goal 6 (Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity), Goal 7 (Empower Inclusive, Productive and Resilient Cities) and Goal 8 (Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy), which will also have to be put into action in order to achieve development within planetary boundaries and fully secure biodiversity and ecosystems, as a consequence. This is something I consider in my comments (see infra).

2. Indicators for Goal 94

The SDSN draft report on the indicators for the post-2015 development agenda proposes, inter alia, the following indicators:

– for Target 9a: Ocean Health Index at the national level (more info here), Red List Index by country and major species group (here), Protected Areas Overlays with Biodiversity (here), Area of Forest Under Sustainable Forest Management as a Percent of Forest Area (here). More indicators that apply to Target 9a are covered under other Targets, i.e. Annual change in forest area and land under cultivation (Target 6b), while additional tools are left for countries to consider, such as with regard to the implementation of spatial planning strategies for coastal and marine areas or the use of destructive fishing techniques.

– for Target 9bOcean Health Index at the regional level, Red List Index for internationally traded species, Proportion of Fish Stocks Within Safe Biological Limits (see here), Protected Area Overlays with Biodiversity (regional and global); additional indicators for countries may include Abundance of Invasive Alien Species and Area of Coral Reef Ecosystems and Percentage Live Cover.

– for Target 9c: Proportion of Total Water Resources Used, Publication of Resource-Based Contracts, Access to Land in Rural Areas, Publication of All Payments Made to Governments Under Resource Contracts; additional indicators may include Improved Land Ownership and Governance of Forests.

As my main areas of interest currently lie within the Targets 9a-b, my observations are mostly concerned with indicators provided for those two.

3. Comments on Goal 9
3.1 Factoring habitat loss in 

Fig.2: Global urbanization and biodiversity hotspots, 2025. Orange dots are population in millions, light/dark blue patterns are biodiversity hotspots.
Fig.2: Global urbanization and biodiversity hotspots, 2025. (projected) Orange dots are population in millions, light/dark blue patterns are biodiversity hotspots. Source: UN & Conservation International 2012

Habitat loss, mostly caused by agricultural expansion, urbanization and infrastructure development, today accounts for the primary cause of species extinction and thus of biodiversity loss5. In order to secure ecosystem services it is then vital to simultaneously track down the drivers of habitat destruction; while Target 6b already provides for and indicator of the Annual Change in Forest Area and Land Under Cultivation, there is no mention in the report of the need to monitor urban expansion and other infrastructure development, with the former “occurring fast in areas adjacent to biodiversity hotspot and faster in low-elevation, biodiversity-rich coastal zones than in other areas”6, with more than 60 percent of the area projected to be urban in 2030 that has yet to be built7 and the latter also representing a foremost threat for habitats,  migratory species and genetic diversity.

Such an indicator (i.e. Annual Change in Wild and/or Protected Habitats and Land Under Urban and Infrastructure Development) could be made object of disaggregation at the regional and national level to better cope with different geographical and demographic contexts (i.e. infrastructure development in developing countries might in some cases call for a specific attention to balancing human rights such as access to electricity, water supplies, sanitation etc. and conservation considerations).

3.2 Fighting Wildlife Crime to Protect Biodiversity 

The goal of securing ecosystem services through the adoption of policies that address drivers of ecosystem degradation could require a parallel commitmment to protect biodiversity and wildlife per se, in order to be fully effective. Today, wildlife crime within the international trade of endangered species still represents one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss, as does legal overharvesting, with the two respectively believed to be worth $160bn and from $10 to 20bn dollars in 20108; adopting the Red List Index as an indicator, while necessary to monitor the species’ biological status, does not monitor the implementation of policies to safeguard or improve that same status as well.

The development of specific indicators could then provide a direct measure of the level of compliance that exists within the international community: as a suggestion, they might include the Volume of Funds (in the forms of international aid, fraction of national budget, or support provided for IGOs such as INTERPOL) utilized by governments to fight wildlife crime and implement international policies, the Annual Variation in Seizures of illegal biological material and the Number of Reported Cases of IUU Fishing in the High-Seas. In addition, as biodiversity hotspots in developing countries are often threatened by armed conflicts9, Goal 9 could ‘borrow’ the symmetrical indicator presented for Goal 1 (Refugees and internal displacement caused by conflict and violence) in the form of an indicator that measures Populations Negatively Affected by Civil War and other forms of violence.

3.3. Assessing environmental change on a warming planet

Fig.3: Per Cent of Live Corals. Source: CBD (2010) Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, adapted from Butchart et. al (2010) Science
Fig.3: Per Cent of Live Corals. Source: CBD (2010) Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, adapted from Butchart et. al (2010) Science

The contribution of climate change to biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation is a matter of primary importance10, expected to threaten with extinction approximately one quarter or more of all species on land by the year 205011, yet almost impossible to quantify effectively, especially at the global level and on a limited timescale. Nonetheless, at the regional and national level, where impacts of warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns etc. are usually heavily studied and monitored, the development of specific indicators could help better assess the relation between those two issues and determine the extent to which ecosystems get modified overtime.

As a suggestion, Shifts in Species Range and/or Trophic Level (with a special focus on keystone species and, in general, on target species for which higher-quality data and assessment methods exist) caused by modifications endured by the food web or by other forms of environmental change attributable to climatic variations (i.e. coral bleaching events, widespread mortality, effects upon shell-forming organisms12) alone or in conjunction with other drivers, could provide the basis for such and indicator13.

3.4. Monitoring sustainability in global fisheries

Fig.3: Proportion of Fish Stocks Within Safe Biological Limits. Source: FAO 2013
Fig.4: Proportion of Fish Stocks Within Safe Biological Limits. Source: FAO 2013

Indicator 83, which refers to the Proportion of Fish Stocks that are Within Safe Biological Limits, could be integrated through an evaluation of the Proportion of Fish Captures (out of the amount of total catches) that come from Sustainably Managed Stocks and/or Stocks that are Within Safe Biological Limits, to monitor the impact of sustainable practices/fisheries on global fisheries production (and not just biological status by itself). Additional indicators on the subject could include the Temporal Variation in Capacity-Enhancing Subsidies (that is, public subsidies of all forms that enhance vessels’  capacity to catch fish) destined to the fisheries sector, which amounted to 20bn dollars in 200914, a measurement of the Decline of Keystone Species caused by overfishing (also a cause of ecosystems degradation) and the Proportion of Seafood Converted into Fishmeal for Aquaculture out of global catches. The last indicator could be particularly needed in the future, as the worldwide increase in the production of carnivorous species has determined an increased use of fishmeal, fish oil and low-value fish in aquaculture15 which in turn results in increased pressure on targeted stocks and entails a net-loss in the amount of seafood available for human consumption.

It is to be noted that the portion of capture fisheries used to produce fishmeal will be about 17 percent by 202116, declining by 6 percent compared with the 2009–2011 average owing to the growing demand for fish for human consumption. However, in 2021 fishmeal production should be 15 percent higher compared with the 2009–2011 average16 (though almost 87 percent of the increase will derive from improved use of fish waste), a rise which causes further concerns on the sustainability of a supply chain that is already facing a dramatic decline of global fish stocks.


On March 14, Thematic Group 8 of the SDSN (Forests, Oceans, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Services) has launched a public consultation on its first draft report. The deadline has been set for April 14; you can find out more and read the current version here.


* Targets marked need to be specified at country or sub-national level
1 SDSN Leadership Council (2013) An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development; p.31
2 SDSN Leadership Council, ibid.; p.21
3 See the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment for more details
4 SDSN Leadership Council (2014) Indicators for SDGs draft report; pp. 110-121
5 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well Being: The Biodiversity Synthesis (World Resources Institute, Washington DC); p.10
6 Elmqvist et al. (eds.) (2013) Urbanization, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: Challenges and Opportunities: A Global Assessment; p.2
7 Elmqvist et al. (eds.) (2013) ibid.; p.410
8 cited by Gillespie (2011) Conservation, Biodiversity and International Law (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.); p.196
9 Hanson et al. (2009) Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots (Conservation Biology. Vol 23, Issue 3); pp.578-587
10 for a general overview see CBD (2010) Global Biodiversity Outlook 3; pp.8-13
11 Malcolm et al. (2006) Global Warming and Extinctions of Endemic Species from Biodiversity Hotspots (Conserv Biol. Vol 20, Issue 2); pp.538–548
12 IPCC (2007) Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Cambridge University Press)
13 For an example of linkages between climate change and alteration in the food web, see Bond and Lavers (2014) Climate change alters the trophic niche of a declining apex marine predator (Glob Change Biol, unedited)
14 Sumaila et al. (2010) A bottom-up re-estimation of global fisheries subsidies (Journal of Bioeconomics 12); pp.201-225
15 Rana et al. (2009) Impact of rising feed prices on aquafeeds and aquaculture production (FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 541. Rome, FAO)
16 FAO (2012) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012; p.189

Celebrate #IFDay 2014!

Today is the second International Day of Forests and the Tree. Exactly one year ago I wrote this to celebrate forests and their role for sustainable development: http://goo.gl/d6ZKcS

You may also like to take a look at the page set up by FAO or read the message of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.