Man in a boat, Nepal

Where environment and development meet: 4 opportunities for collective influence and action to 2020

The political context around environment and development is shifting: funders and the general public are calling for greater accountability around the work of NGOs and its impact.

Globally agreed aims, built around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, provide a framework for meeting these demands.

In addition to having nearly universal political support, these frameworks reflect robust and up-to-date scientific understanding of the ways in which nature supports human development.

These ambitious, evidence-based global frameworks embracing people-centric, environmental and economic goals present a major opportunity for UK environment and development organisations to collaborate on areas of common concern.

While NGOs’ missions are diverse, they converge around nature and humanity, and are united by a vision for a better world, one that protects our planet and the wellbeing of those living on it. 2020, when the Paris Agreement comes into force, the SDGs have a 5-year review and a new Convention on Biodiversity is agreed, will be a watershed year for progressing this vision.

4 areas for collective influence

1) Delivering the SDGs

The SDGs bring together not only environment and development, but also domestic and international agendas. They strongly highlight the human development cost of so-called “environmental” problems such as biodiversity loss and other ecosystem services, or air and water pollution.

These ambitious goals seek to replace a tired economic model with one that is low-carbon and environmentally sustainable, and that generates the political will to simultaneously tackle poverty, inequality and disadvantage.

2) Driving domestic and international ambition on resource consumption and climate change

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Climate change is a familiar area of obvious synergy across environment and development organisations. In the same way, the UK’s unsustainable consumption of resources also has significant impacts on people’s lives in other countries.

Whether promoting low-carbon trade or protecting flora and fauna, tackling unsustainable production of food or reducing increasing amounts of waste, supporting the millions of people displaced by climate change or achieving the 1.5 degree ambition, the actions required to address these challenges are the same for environment and development organisations.

The political landscape has changed dramatically since the monumental signing of the Paris Agreement. The nationalist upsurge, in the UK and globally, threatens to undermine support for international climate action. That said, the government’s promise of a “Green Brexit” offers the opportunity for the UK to keep its profile as a leader on climate change.

3) Redefining the UK’s place in a post-Brexit world

Brexit is set to drive significant shifts in UK policy, presenting openings to shape the political agenda domestically and internationally, across environment and development. The government’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” vision provides an opportunity for NGOs to encourage the government to show international leadership on sustainable development.

It remains unclear whether, or how far, post-Brexit policy will affect environmental protection systems. The recently announced Environment Bill provides NGOs with an opportunity to pressure the government to take positive action and step up domestic environmental standards and reduce negative impacts internationally.

From a development perspective, Brexit is an opening for the UK to position itself as a strong, outward-looking global actor through redoubling commitments to tackle poverty, climate change and loss of biodiversity. Through its international aid contributions and enduring commitment to the 0.7% GDP target, the UK maintains recognition as a prominent player in development.

4) A more sustainable environment, a more equal society

Equality has long been recognised as underpinning healthy, decent and dignified lives. A growing body of evidence shows the links between equality and a healthy environment and between inequality and environmental damage. The most vulnerable are usually hit hardest by the effects of environmental damage and the most unequal wealthy countries are the heaviest polluters and biggest contributors to climate change.

Inequality has an environmental dimension, whether in terms of allocation of environmental assets, differential treatment in addressing environmental problems or inequitable allocation of the costs and benefits of global governance.

4 opportunities for joint action

1) Collective push on the SDGs: At next year’s UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the government has committed to report on how it will implement the SDGs. NGOs can play a positive role by helping the government to marry its domestic and international commitments, set out in its Voluntary National Review.

2) Reaffirming leadership on climate change: By 2020, the UK, along with all parties to the Paris Agreement – must submit its second climate action plan. The next two years present a crucial opportunity for joint action from NGOs to support the government in increasing ambition and reasserting domestic and international leadership on climate change. The backdrop of 2018 marking 10 years since the Climate Change Act adds impetus for the UK to revitalise its international standing as a climate leader.

3) Influencing UK policy on environment and development post-Brexit: The government’s vow to deliver a “Green Brexit” offers NGOs an opportunity, and a shared obligation, to pressure the government on delivering its climate promises from ramping up investments in low-carbon solutions to reconfirming climate finance commitments for the most vulnerable in the poorest nations.

4) Linking equality and a sustainable environment: Tackling inequality and protecting the environment lie at the core of environment and development NGOs’ mandates. There is merit in exploring these links further and using collective influence to add momentum to the narrative that the environment is more sustainable when our societies are more equal.

Where mandates overlap, UK environment and development organisations have the ability to effect change around an increasingly common agenda. The run-up to 2020 presents rich opportunities for collaboration at a critical time for the both the sector and country.

This blog is based on a series of recent interviews with CEOs of UK environment and development organisations.

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