Agenda 2030 Graduate School blog

Lund University Agenda 2030 Graduate School is a global, cutting-edge research school and collaboration platform for issues related to societal challenges, sustainability and the 2030 Agenda. The 17 PhD students from all faculties at Lund University enrolled with the Agenda 2030 Graduate School relate their specific research topics to the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog the PhD students of the Graduate School discuss topical research and societal issues related to the 2030 Agenda.

Case Studies Using a Focus on Systems Thinking in the Area of Environmental Science

Treetops photographed from below against the sky. Photo.
Photo by Angela Benito on Unsplash.

Posted on 25 November 2020 by Jesica Murcia López (Centre for Environmental and Climate Research)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

The heart of the dilemma to answer this question from the environmental science perspective lies in the urgent need to understand the trade-offs between food and nature conservation. For centuries, agriculture evolved by improving crop production and livestock breeding techniques, adapting them to the current land conditions and climatic changes. Today, our current industrialized agricultural system is colliding against its own limits[1], a fact that fuels our conviction that agriculture and livestock farming are the major causes of environmental degradation. For more than 50 years, agricultural productivity has increased to an extraordinary degree, however, this acceleration has led to excessive exploitation of the land. The way we are currently producing food is negatively impacting climate, water, top soil, biodiversity and marine environments[2] and if we do not change course, then we will seriously undermine our ability to provide adequate food for future populations.

The gravity of land exploitation, therefore leads to the degradation of ecosystems, which has enormous negative impacts on biodiversity, a term coined in 1985 by Walter Rosen to indicate the set of natural environments and living species that populate the biosphere.  Furthermore, the redefinition[3] of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend” in this context is a clear call to tackle the importance between delivering higher yields and improving biodiversity out of the same piece of land. We do not want to lead ourselves towards the violation of the principles of inclusion, justice and equity on which the 2030 Agenda on sustainable development are founded, and this for the simple reason that biodiversity is the way in which life is expressed.

On the other hand, through interdisciplinary collaboration and creation of targeted metrics and tools with scientific reliable data, it will be easier to influence key decision-makers, to succeed in the integration of different SDGs towards a number of key policies at regional, national and global scales. An analysis of the environment-related goals and targets[4] shows that eight of the SDGs have a major focus on the environment and natural resources: (2) food and agriculture, (6) water and sanitation, (7) energy, (11) human settlements, (12) sustainable consumption and production, (13) climate change, (14) oceans, and (15) terrestrial ecosystems. Therefore, achieving sustainability requires societies to address the spectrum of interacting biophysical, social, economic, and governance issues. Systems integration is therefore essential to create sustainability solutions in linked human–environment systems[5] and the advantages of integrated systems-oriented approaches are necessary to address the complexity of social-ecological systems[6]. Interesting case studies show, for example, how systems thinking in the Ghanaian agricultural sector revealed essential relationships across policy, social, and environmental dimensions of the sector[7], and that agricultural intensification can increase the rate of expansion of agricultural land[8]. In addition, a case study in the Amazon biome[9] based on the resilience thinking approach concluded that Amazonia is under threat. It suggests that biodiversity loss and functional redundancy (the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning) severely limits the long-term sustainability of fundamental ecosystem services’ provision in the local, regional, and global scales. Finally, systems thinking approach therefore provides an essential lens for approaching sustainability.

[1] Zamagni S. (2019) Conclusions: The Way Forward in Achieving the SDGS—The Urgency of Transforming Our Agri-Food Systems. In: Valentini R., Sievenpiper J., Antonelli M., Dembska K. (eds) Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals Through Sustainable Food Systems. Springer, Cham.

[2] The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) (2018). TEEB for Agriculture & Food: Scientific and Economic Foundations. Geneva: UN Environment.

[3] Griggs, D., M. Stafford-Smith, O. Gaffney, J. Rockström, M. C. Öhman, P. Shyamsundar, W. Steffen, G. Glaser, N. Kanie, and I. Noble. 2013. Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Nature 495(7441): 305–307.

[4] UNEP ROE (2015). UNEP Regional Office for Europe (UNEP/ROE) and the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Analytical report on regional implications and perspectives of the proposed SDGs as they relate to the UNEP ROE PoW identifying areas of alignment. Geneva: UNEP Regional Office

[5] Liu, J., H. Mooney, V. Hull, S. J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T. Hertel, J. Lubchenco, K. C. Seto, P. Gleick, C. Kremen, and S. Li. 2015. Systems integration for global sustainability. Science 347(6225): 1258832.

[6] Fischer, J., T. A. Gardner, E. M. Bennett, P. Balvanera, R. Biggs, S. Carpenter, T. Daw, C. Folke, R. Hill, and T. P. Hughes. 2015. Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social-ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14: 144–149.

[7] Banson, K. E., N. C. Nguyen, O. J. Bosch, and T. V. Nguyen. 2015. A systems thinking approach to address the complexity of agribusiness for sustainable development in Africa: a case study in Ghana. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 32: 672–688.

[8] Phelps, J., L. R. Carrasco, E. L. Webb, L. P. Koh, and U. Pascual. 2013. Agricultural intensification escalates future conservation costs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:7601– 7606.

[9] Ruiz Agudelo, C. A., N. Mazzeo, I. Díaz, M. P. Barral, G. Piñeiro, I. Gadino, I. Roche, and R. Acuña. 2020. Land use planning in the Amazon basin: challenges from resilience thinking. Ecology and Society 25(1):8.

November 25, 2020

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