Unusual Suspects: what contributions can biodiversity conservation organisations make to the Sustainable Development Goals?

Unusual Suspects: what contributions can biodiversity conservation organisations make to the Sustainable Development Goals?

Environmental issues underpin several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and it is important to recognise the cross-cutting contribution that environmental strategies can make. This project, which involved the University of Cambridge Department of Geography, BirdLife International, RSPB, FFI and IIED, undertook an analysis of a portfolio of recent/current CCI member-led programmes through a review of project documents and project manager interviews.  The project has drawn upon the experience of CCI organisations to identify the key questions that need to be answered regarding biodiversity conservation and the SDGs, and in so doing will help to set a future agenda for research.

The main output of this project is the design of a web-based tool to help conservationists engage with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), www.sdgtool.com which was formally launched on the 22 January 2019.

The tool design was primarily based on a questionnaire survey of CCI-partner projects with Darwin Initiative funding. It was further informed by a review of the existing literature about biodiversity and the SDGs, an open workshop in the David Attenborough Building and discussions within the project team and CCI more broadly. This work showed us that engaging with the SDG agenda can be complex and time-consuming, that certain contributions of conservation work to the SDGs are easily overlooked and that the interpretation of SDG targets is subjective. Based on these three insights we designed a tool aimed to help conservationists engage with the full list of 169 SDG targets and draw out hidden synergies while also leaving the final interpretation up to the user.

We are currently preparing for publication a piece of research based on the findings of the questionnaire and the literature review as well as a further review of claims made in all the recent Darwin Initiative reports which are requested to report on the SDGs. This paper should indicate potentially fruitful future areas of engagement.

Project Aims

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) stress the importance of the interconnectedness of global goals – especially across the economic, social and environmental sub-sectors. The aim of this project was to find ways to approach the SDGs in a more integrated way. Issues examined by the project were:

  • What are the key questions around biodiversity conservation’s potential to deliver the SDGs?
  • What does experience from existing initiatives within CCI organisations contribute to answering these questions, and where are the critical gaps?
  • How can this information be used to help make the case for mainstreaming biodiversity considerations into all relevant sectors associated with the delivery of the SDGs?

Key Activities

The project designed and built a scheme for a web-based tool to help conservationists identify SDG targets and goals which are relevant to their work. The tool (www.sdgtool.com) was launched and publicized with additional funding from a University of Cambridge ESRC Impact Acceleration Account award.

The idea for the tool and the details of its design were based on the following project activities:

  • Discussions within the project team including input from all 4 partner institutions.
  • A questionnaire survey of the contribution to the SDGs from some current projects of CCI member institutions (projects with Darwin Initiative funding).
  • An open workshop held in the DAB on the 23rd November 2017 with 24 participants from CCI institutions and other Cambridge-based institutions with relevant interests.
  • A review of the literature relating to the SDGs and their relationship with biodiversity conservation.

In addition, we conducted a review of claims made about contributions to the SDGs in reports of Darwin-funded projects (not only those led by CCI members) and compared these with the questionnaire results and literature review. We also considered the frequency of ‘ecosystem-services’ arguments in real project reports vs the SDG literature. Results of this analysis are in preparation for a publication which will highlight some key questions on the relationship between biodiversity conservation and the SDGs. PI Vira also supervised a related MPhil dissertation in the Department of Land Economy (R. Cousins, 2019, “Towards greater integration: Exploring the links between the Sustainable Development Goals”).

Conservation Impact

The project produced an online tool which could influence the extent to which conservationists engage with broader societal agendas through the framework of the SDGs and, thereby, the extent to which conservation, and biodiversity are seen as central to development. Such impact will depend, however, on efforts to publicise and share the tool.

So far the tool has been publicised at the CBD COP and the World Economic Forum in Davos as well as within CCI. It has also been presented to the secretariat of the Darwin Initiative and feedback has been positive so far. The tool was featured in the news section of Oryx in January 2019 (Vira, B. and Schneider, H., 2019. Biodiversity conservation initiatives have unfulfilled potential to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Oryx, v. 53, p.15-15. doi:10.1017/s0030605318001291); and on the Birdlife International website: https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/how-does-your-conservation-project-contribute-sustainable-development-goals. There is also a promotional video for the tool on YouTube: https://youtu.be/efHhXu10RW8

Site usage is being monitored. In July 2019, Nicholas Wilkinson led a 1 hour workshop on the SDGs and the tool at the Society for Conservation Biology’s International Congress (ICCB) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The workshop was attended by 20 people, most of whom were practicing conservationists working for small and large NGOs as well as some working for state agencies. A few researchers and students also attended. The workshop was focused around discussion of 5 imaginary conservation projects and involved looking at the SDGs at goal level and then target level, using the tool. It provoked a lively discussion about the role of the SDGs in conservation and may provide a model for future work. Participation at SCB 2019 was funded through additional co-funding from the University of Cambridge’s ESRC IAA discretionary fund.

The project has also facilitated discussions about the potential of conservation to contribute to the SDGs, including through the November 2017 workshop. Work currently in preparation for publication should further facilitate discussion.


  • A web-based tool to help conservationists identify SDG targets and goals which are relevant to their work: www.sdgtool.com.
  • ‘Research priorities’ workshop report
  • ‘Research priorities’ paper for submission to a peer-reviewed journal
  • A report from the analysis of the portfolio of CCI organisation projects
  • A paper based on a review of experience from the portfolio analysis – addressing some of the research priority questions – for submission to a peer-reviewed journal
  • A briefing paper to inform Darwin applicants on biodiversity conservation and the SDGs
  • Greater understanding and agreement among researchers, policy-makers and practitioners of the key research questions that need to be addressed to enhance biodiversity conservation’s potential to deliver the SDGs
  • A policy and advocacy strategy for ensuring biodiversity considerations are incorporated into the implementation of all of the SDGs
  • A policy briefing note (for CBD, UNEP and other key target audiences)

For further information please visit: www.conservation.cam.ac.uk/sdgtool.

CCI partners Involved

Other Organisations Involved

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)


Image: mangloard via Flickr creative commons

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The Sustainable Development Goals Tool

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) tool is aimed at people working in the field of biodiversity and conservation to make it easier to engage with the 169 targets which underlie the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. By answering a series of questions, you will be guided towards suggestions of the SDG targets that might be…