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Symposium 2015

Solution for Putting the SDGs to Work

The Challenge

Much of the recent public debate on international development has revolved around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015. Negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Dev ...

Much of the recent public debate on international development has revolved around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015. Negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are now under way. While the MDGs had a rather narrow focus on key issues of human development such as income, poverty, basic health, and education, the scope of the SDGs is much broader. The SDGs follow up on the previous poverty-oriented goals which have not been met completely, but they then also include distributional considerations as well as environmental objectives such as the protection of oceans and tropical forests. The SDGs are thus firmly rooted in the sustainable development paradigm, which renders them conceptually appealing. At the same time, the SDG list is extremely long, comprising 17 goals broken down into 169 sub-goals (so-called targets) as compared to the 8 MDGs with their 21 targets. This new complexity may pose a risk to the popularity and realization of the new development goals, given that the MDGs' appeal to a wider audience also originated from their catchy simplicity and measurability.

Desert2Eden—Integrated Restoration and Development of Arid Regions to Address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Ever since the conception of “sustainability” as a guiding paradigm it has become evident how difficult it is to integrate social, ecological and economic aspects—because of their complex interrelations and trade-offs. The same applies to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). None of these 17 substantial and worthwhile goals can responsibly be rejected. However, two critical questions have to be asked: How can they be achieved and how do they interplay with one another, are there trade-offs between them? Any measure trying to address (only) one single SDG runs the risk of counteracting others, and the more we focus on operational details, the more we lose the greater context. I think it is therefore promising to work with scenarios, to design stories, to envision a rich, complex and diversified image of a world in which the SDGs were realized. Such visions would have the potential to combine several SDGs and sketch a comprehensive picture which allows seeing the whole system and focusing on the interrelations and larger trends. In the following I will first point to trade-offs between certain SDGs (1.), I will then explain why some SDGs should be considered as foundational because neglecting them would threaten the realization of all others (2.). Thirdly, I will sketch a vision, which has the potential to address several of the foundational SDGs at once (3.) before I conclude with some remarks on the SDGs addressed (4.).

1. Background—Trade-offs between SDGs

There are serious concerns about trade-offs between certain SDGs. The realization of some SDGs might impede the achievement of others. For example, the increased demand for biomass (which is implicit in goals 2, 7, 12, 15) “cannot be met sustainably,” as a recent study on the SDGs concluded (IASS, 2015: 4), because this would imply substantial ecological damages. Biomass is not just any quantity. If we fall short of biomass production, the feeding of humankind is at risk—and before that will occur, more natural habitats will be converted to arable land, which will most likely imply ecological disasters and impede other goals (e.g., halt biodiversity loss, SDG 15). Already today up to 40% of arable land is seriously degraded, desertification and soil erosion continue, humans’ room for maneuver in fighting climate change diminishes, since every year 20–50,000 km² of land are lost due to erosion (UNEP, 2007: 95) and the CO2 released from soil adds up to the range of 100 Gt (FAO 2009b, 8). Land consumption continues, and even in countries like Germany every day 70 ha of land is consumed (Destatis, 2014: 14).

Median crop yields will fall by 2% every 10 years for the rest of the Century (UNCCD, 2014a: 5). At the same time, the global crop demand will increase by 70% until 2050 (FAO, 2009: 2). How can such a demand for an ever growing population be met—a demand which is not only increasing due to population growth but also to changing diets?

Open space for additional arable land can hardly be found. On the contrary, during the last 40 years nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost due to erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more than 10 million hectare per year (UNCCD, 2014b: 7).

The agricultural production cannot be increased much further, since fertilizers, monocultures, and soil erosion take their ecological toll already. The metabolic cycles of phosphor and nitrogen have passed the limits of the safe operating space and reached or even transgressed their planetary boundaries (Rockström, 2009: 474).

Irrigation, even today accounting for 70% of fresh water consumption, might allow increasing the yields in some developing regions. These are often arid regions, however, which will face continuous increase of water scarcity in the future.

2. What would be needed? Foundational SDGs

Water, food, and energy are necessary preconditions for any human life. If just one of them is missing, no other SDG will be achieved. There will be no chance to end poverty (SDG 1), to end hunger (SDG 2), to ensure healthy lives (SDG 3), education (SDG 4) and to achieve gender equality (SDG 5) if the most basic needs cannot be met. Since food can only be produced by terrestrial and /or marine ecosystems their conservation has utmost importance. Since climate change, in turn, is impeding these very ecosystems, it will have to be combated effectively as well in order to secure food supply.

Therefore, I see the SDGs 6 (water), 7 (energy), 14 and 15 (conversation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems) and 13 (climate change) as precondition for any achievement of the others. I will call them foundational SDGs because they lay the foundation on which all other SDGs have to build. Progress in their achievement is needed lest the whole concept of SDGs would be futile. That does by no means diminish the importance of the others, but only if water, food, and energy can be sufficiently provided to feed the people of the world, there is a chance to tackle the other SDGs at all. Healthy lives won’t be reached without water, food, and energy.

Therefore, I see great potential in addressing the supply of water, food, and energy—going hand in hand with the protection of the ecosystems and the combat of climate change.

3. Proposed solution

The solution proposed is an integrated restoration and development of arid regions, which cover 41% of terrestrial landscape and accommodate one third of humanity (UNEP, 2005: 1). It follows a threefold agenda:

  1. Restore and rehabilitate eroded land and regain it for biomass production
  2. Utilize the high solar radiation these areas often exhibit for production of renewable energy
  3. Turn both previous objectives into economic benefit and develop infrastructure and industrial ecology parks


3.1 Restore and rezhabilitate eroded land and regain it for biomass production

In light of the abovementioned developments which bring pressure on an increased food production (soil degradation, water scarcity, etc.), measures of sustainable biomass production and sustainable land management should be sought. A key finding of a recent study of the International Resource Panel is that “[l]arge areas with degraded soils are in need of restoration and better land use planning would help to avoid building activities on fertile land.” (UNEP, 2014: 8) Two most obvious benefits of such restoration would be the potential for biomass production and for carbon sequestration. “Soil represents the earth’s largest carbon sink that can be controlled and improved—larger even than forests.” (FAO, 2009: vii) For good reasons the UN has declared 2015 to be the year of the soil and wants to “strengthen initiatives in connection with the SDG process” (FAO, 2015). The potential for restoring degraded land is huge: “2 billion hectares of degraded land have the potential for land rehabilitation and forest restoration.” (UNCCD, 2014a: 13)

Restoration of ecosystems in currently desertlike regions will also have positive impact on several other domains like biodiversity, local hydrologic cycles, income of rural population and potentially even on microclimates. There are impressive showcases of restoration projects in different regions like China, Australia, or Sub-Saharan Africa. In Israel it could be demonstrated that soil erosion during flash floods was 90% less for land under sustainable land management compared to farms using conventional agricultural practices (UNCCD, 2014a: 13). In Niger, land productivity improved and the water table rose by 14 meters after 15 years of rehabilitating degraded land using water harvesting techniques (ibid.).

In just a few years’ time grass, rooted plants and even trees have restored ecosystems in formerly completely desertic areas. An extensive use of these areas can well be sustainable, if traditional techniques are applied which have been used for hundreds of years—especially traditional forms of nomadism with their pastoral economy or forms of conservation agriculture which addresses the specifics of these meagre soils. Nomadic herds can yield higher returns per hectare than livestock farms and be more profitable than other forms of agriculture (HBS, 2015: 56).

Some water is needed in the beginning, but over time the local hydrological cycles can be revitalized, as impressive examples have shown. Once the floor is covered with plants again, the roots and texture can hold water, rain does not evaporate or flow off, water is kept—a critical gain, since most of the water on degraded land flows off or trickles away. The restoration issue is a water issue.

Although some lighthouse projects demonstrate impressive results, there is a lot of education and persuading needed that such investments pay-off—not only in the long run but also mid term. This “short termism” does often not allow to invest in such projects on a larger scale (IASS, 2015: 14), although the rate of return of grassland restoration is among the highest for different ecosystems and goes up to 80% in the long run (WBGU, 2011: 40).

3.2 Utilize high solar radiation for production of renewable energy

The second motivation of turning to the arid regions and deserts is the exploitation of the abundant potential for renewable energy production. Highest values of solar radiation and/or substantial potential for wind energy are typical for many arid regions. In just six hours the deserts of the Earth receive the same amount of energy than humanity consumes in an entire year—a comparison used by the DESERTEC Foundation (DGCoR, 2011). Whereas the public discussion has often focused on the energy supply for the “North,” the DESERTEC Foundation itself elaborates on the great potential for the arid regions themselves, for economic growth, job creation, or desalination of sea water (DGCoR, 2011: 70).

Water scarcity is, of course, a severe issue in most arid regions. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is using 1.5 million barrel of oil every day for desalinating sea water (DGCoR, 2011: 64), which is more than half of Germany’s daily oil consumption—just for desalinating sea water! One third of the country’s water consumption is desalinated sea water. However, the population is growing, the demand is increasing and scarcity getting more severe. By 2050 the per capita availability of potable water in the MENA states will be cut into halves (ibid., 62). The water issue is an energy issue.

With enough renewable energy available, desalination would have a much lower footprint. Water, in turn, will be needed for restoration of degraded land, and both sustainable land management and energy production will benefit from the development of infrastructure.

3.3 Develop infrastructure and design industrial ecology parks

Abundance of energy supply can be a cornucopia for further developments. In today’s world energy is the basis for almost everything. The Gulf region demonstrates what is possible if energy is abundant (e.g., Dubai). However, this abundance is currently based on oil, and the oil supply rates are stagnating or decreasing. Similar abundance of renewable energy is possible, however. Even today the prices for some renewable energy technologies have become competitive and will get even more attractive with declining fossil reserves (cf. Al-Riffai, et al., 2015: 7717). To ensure the long-term prosperity of these regions, a share of the oil dollars could be invested into renewable energy production and infrastructure development.

The abundance of renewable energy could give rise to “soft industrialization” processes, for manufacturing and /or construction of power plants, for operations and maintenance services, for trading intermediates, etc. Education systems will be needed to train technicians and engineers, research and development in related fields like energy storage, energy transmission, etc. can help building up skills and create additional high value services. Altogether, renewable energy production in MENA countries has “potential for significant positive employment effects” as a 2014 study on Egypt and Marocco concluded (Calzadilla, et al., 2014: 22).

Utilizing solar energy can also help greening established industries. Industrial ecology parks seem to be particularly suitable in light of scarcity of natural resources, since they realize the idea of a closed loop value-added process, in which the waste of one company is being used as resource for another one. Cement production, for instance, already taking place in several MENA states and with a heavy carbon footprint1, could be designed much more environmentally friendly. Process heat from solar radiation could reduce the carbon emissions during the synthesis which requires high temperatures. The cement production process releases CO2, which could be sequestrated. This sequestrated CO2 could then be used for the synthesis of renewable hydro carbons, since hydrogen, generated by solar power, could be synthesized to methane if combined with sequestrated carbon dioxide, which can be exported by tankers and pipelines as today. The cement, in turn, might be used for concrete production. Concrete, basically made out of sand and cement, has been proven as a cheap base material for heat storage facilities—which are necessary for around-the-clock availability of energy. In a similar way entire new industry sectors might evolve over time for industries with a high demand for process heat and energy.

While industrialization will imply a sectoral shift and create more jobs in manufacturing and high-skilled services, the combination with restoration of degraded lands does also address the lower skilled labor market (cf. Al-Riffai, et al., 2015: 7731).

If land is being restored where this is feasible, and energy produced in areas where restoration is not possible in the first place, there is need for infrastructure—roads, wires and pipes for electricity, water. With a gradually successful restoration of natural ecosystems, even housing is conceivable (e.g., for maintenance workers, shepards, etc.), services for education and health, etc.

Infrastructure development, which would go hand-in-hand with the restoration activities and the “soft development” by renewable energy, will trigger positive feedback mechanisms and will create further jobs and economic growth.

The development of infrastructure, in turn, has a positive effect on economic development in general, and on food security in rural areas in particular (IAASTD, 2008: 6). If there were concerted programs for such a “soft development” of rural areas, entire new processes of value creation and infrastructure development can be conceived which would trigger job creation of a significant size.

4. SDGs directly affected by the proposed solution

Restoration of degraded land does directly address SDG 15 and 13, and—once the first results will be visible (often after a few years already), an extensive agricultural land usage (e.g., pastoralism) will also contribute to food security (SDG 2), sustainable economic growth (SDG 8) and poverty reduction (SDG 1).

Energy production is directly approached by SDG 7—combined with desalination of sea water (where possible) this would also support SDG 6.

Finally, infrastructure development and sustainable industrialization and innovation (heat storage blueprints!) relates to SDG 9, but it does also have the potential to strengthen the means of revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development (SDG 17), since such projects can only be achieved with the smartest approaches, the best knowledge, and the needed localization of the concept to the concrete needs on site.

Only the direct effects of such projects have the potential to address 9 out of 17 SDGs, i.e., more than 50% of them. It can well be argued that other SDGs will also be followed. For instance, the inequality between the nations will decrease once there is a real potential for economic development in arid regions.


Al-Riffai, P., J. Blohmke, C. Breisinger, and M. Wiebelt (2015). Harnessing the sun and wind for economic development? An Economy-wide assessment for Egypt. Sustainability 7: 7714–7740.

Calzadilla, A., M. Wiebelt, J. Blohmke, and G. Klepper (2014). Desert Power 2050: Regional and sectoral impacts of renewable electricity production in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Kiel Working Papers No. 1891, January 2014.

DGCoR (Deutsche Gesellschaft CLUB OF ROME in Cooperation with the DESERTEC Foundation) (2011). Der DESERTEC-Atlas. Welt-atlas zu den erneuerbaren Energien. Hamburg.

Destatis—Statistisches Bundesamt (2014). Nachhaltige Entwicklung in Deutschland. Indikatorenbericht 2014, Wiesbaden.

FAO (2009a). How to feed the world in 2050. Issue Brief, Rome.

FAO (2009b). Review of evidence on drylands pastoral systems and climate change. Implications and opportunities for mitigation and adaptation. Rome.

FAO (2015). (July 9, 2015) <>

HBS (Heinrich Böll Stiftung) (2015). Soil Atlas, Facts and Figures about earth, land, and fields. Berlin.

IAASTD (2009). International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report, Washington, D.C.

IASS (2015). The Role of Biomass in the Sustainable Development Goals: A Reality Check and Governance Implication. IASS Working Paper, Potsdam.

Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, et al. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461: 472–475.

Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) (2015). Facts and Statistics, Water Resources and Scarcity. (July 9, 2015) <>

UNEP (2005). Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being—Desertification Synthesis.

UNEP (2007). Global Environmental Outlook 4. Environment for Development. Valletta/Malta.

UNEP (2014). Assessing Global Land Use. Balancing Consumption with Sustainable Supply. International Resource Panel (UNEP),Summary for policy-makers. Paris.

UNCCD (2014a). Land-based Adaptation and Resilience Powered by Nature. Bonn 2014.

UNCCD (2014b). The Land in Numbers. Livelihoods at a Tipping Point. Bonn 2014.

WBGU (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Globale Umweltveränderungen) (2011). World in Transition. A Social Contract for Sustainability. Berlin.


1 Due to the energy and process heat needed and the CO2 released during the synthesis.

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