SDGs & the Nexus

In 2000, a set of eight ambitious development goals for the betterment of global society was agreed upon by all 183 member states of the United Nations.1 What became known as the Millennium Development Goals created a series of quantifiable targets to:

Courtney Kimmel, CLiGS Fellow and Associate Director, attended the working session to brainstorm development of an Academic and Practitioners Network for nexus thinking and practice.

Courtney Kimmel, CLiGS Fellow and Associate Director, attended the working session to brainstorm development of an Academic and Practitioners Network for nexus thinking and practice.

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empowering women
  4. Reduce child mortality rates
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/ AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

While tremendous progress has been made on all of these challenging social fronts, particularly among the world’s poorest populations, many developing nations will miss their goals by the 2015 target.  In anticipation of the need to extend the timeline beyond 2015, and recognizing the complex interdependencies of many of these issues, extensive dialogue has been taking place around the world to shape the Post-2015 Agenda and what will ultimately be announced as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These global conversations are taking place online and in-person at conferences and workshops, where discussions have focused on how to integrate eleven major themes into the new set of development goals:

  • Inequalities
  • Health
  • Education
  • Growth and employment
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Governance
  • Conflict and fragility
  • Population dynamics
  • Food and nutrition security
  • Energy
  • Water

Even a quick glance at this list should communicate the complexity of framing, let alone designing, strategies and implementing action for pursuing sustainable development goals, as all of the themes are interconnected. It should also suggest that workable solutions will not come from one sector, discipline, or profession alone.  Strategies to address complex sustainable development goals will require robust and innovative collaboration that spans the boundaries that traditionally have divided us.

CLiGS Associate Jill Knoll, closest on the left, was invited to a special closed session to provide input to UN Global Compact to the Head of Sustainable Agriculture for UN Global Compact Puvan J Selvanathan (head of the table)

Earlier this month, we (the authors) attended a conference hosted by the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina to explore the interconnections of several of the eleven issues up for consideration to be included in the SDGs.  The Nexus 2014: Water, Food, Climate and Energy Conference, building on groundwork laid in 2011 with the Bonn Nexus Conference hosted by the German Government, was organized to bring together an international community of experts and stakeholders from business, academia, policymaking, and the nonprofit sector to discuss the intersections and intricacies of food, water, and energy supply and demand, especially in the context of climate change.  One of the primary goals of the conference was to provide input in the form of a declaration to the UN Sustainable Development Goal process.

Jill Knoll, representing The Coca-Cola Company in addition to CLiGS, was also invited to a closed session for private sector participants to provide input on coordinating the United Nations Global Compact’s Water, Climate, and Food & Agriculture programs to enhance United Nations Global Compact signatories’ ability to promote nexus solutions that integrate public and private sector thinking.  Courtney Kimmel attended a special session to discussion formation of the Academic and Practitioners Network to brainstorm ways that academia and practitioners could better collaborate and align priorities to support the complex and transdisciplinary nature of nexus thinking and solutions.  Look for follow-up blog posts on our individual reflections on these sessions.

The four-day conference explored the nuances of understanding and managing water, food, climate, and energy nexus through a series of plenary and breakout sessions.  Among the panelists, presenters, and attendees were numerous program directors and high-level representatives from global institutions such as the World Bank, United Nations, and the Global Environmental Facility; multinational corporations including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, and AECOM; transnational NGOs including WWF International, Skoll Global Threats, and ICLEI; State dignitaries; and representatives from notable academic and research institutes around the world. A final deliverable of the conference was a declaration titled “Building Integrated Approaches into the Sustainable Development Goals” that was sent by the conference directors to the UN Secretary-General.

Takeaway lessons from the conference were clear:

  • Any efforts to pursue the SDGs (however they are ultimately framed) will rest on assuring water, energy, and food security
  • Climate change and population growth will make this feat all the more challenging, but neither should be considered fixed variables
  • Working on any one of these issues in isolation from the others is near impossible
  • Success will demand the ability to work across sectoral, professional, disciplinary, and jurisdictional boundaries

The work ahead to understand, communicate, and manage the intricacies of the water, food, energy nexus is daunting, but the opportunities it creates for innovation and collaboration are exciting.  There is an important role for an organization such as the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability to play in advancing the understanding and practice of cross-boundary leadership and collaboration, something that will be a key element in pursuing the necessarily ambitious SDGs.

  1. There are now 193 member nations of the UN

Greening the Grey – Green Infrastructure for Sustainable Development

GtG2013-coverInfrastructure supports our lives and livelihoods. It manages our access to food, water, energy, transportation, communication, waste disposal, and other critical services. It provides the foundation on which our communities, economy, and security are built and thrive or falter. The strength and resilience of our infrastructure systems are directly correlated to the strength and resilience of the places we live, now and into an uncertain future. Most of us take the infrastructure, and its resilience, for granted – until something fails or the cost of repair becomes exorbitant.

“Grey” infrastructure has traditionally attracted the most attention – e.g., roads, power grids, piped sewer and water systems – but the “green” infrastructure, the natural systems and features that provide valuable ecosystem services, is just as critical. We need both to support resilient and vibrant places. In the past, these green infrastructure systems were often left out of the planning calculus, with the value of the services they supplied unaccounted for as a positive externality. But with mounting investments required to repair and maintain the aging stock of grey infrastructure systems, and increasing environmental pressures from expanding urbanization, the value of ecosystem services that have otherwise been “free” are entering more prominently into town, city, and regional planning and management equations. Compounded by increasing regulatory pressure to address water and air quality, the need to anticipate and adapt for localized (if yet uncertain) impacts of climate change, and the drive for economic competitiveness, all with ever more constricted finances, communities, cities, and regions across the US are increasingly assigning higher priority to their green infrastructure systems.

Green infrastructure is a concept that entered the sustainability discourse in the last decade among a wide range of agencies, organizations, companies, community groups, and planners. It elevates natural systems as infrastructure to a level of importance similar to “grey” systems and provides a common language for discussing these systems. But as is often the case when new organizing concepts emerge, its definition, application, and implication must be negotiated at all levels. Its role, function, and measures of effectiveness must be defined relative to other infrastructure systems; to the entities that regulate, build, operate, and maintain them; and, to the services they provide and the quantification or qualification of those services. As is true in most negotiation, some interests prevail over others. While green infrastructure is becoming a more mainstream element of city and regional planning discussions in the US, it is running the risk of being narrowly defined in a way that does not capture the full range and value of ecosystem services it provides.

In this report, we make the case that Green infrastructure is more than a bioswale or a green roof or a forested corridor – it’s a different way of thinking about infrastructure. Understood as a multi-scale network of ecological features and systems that provide multiple functions and benefits, it provides a systems approach to planning and development that recognizes the value of ecosystem services and strives to integrate and enhance those ecosystem services within our built environment. Green infrastructure is not limited to a particular type of technology or feature doing a specific job; it’s the result of a wide network of institutions, organization, agencies, businesses, and citizens bringing ecosystem services back into planning and development. It’s ultimately about people and organizations making that choice. Realizing green infrastructure’s full potential requires coordination and collaboration across multiple boundaries – political, jurisdictional, agency, organizational, sectoral, disciplinary, professional, to name just a few. The most significant challenge for advancing a robust and integrated form of green infrastructure may be one of leadership and collective action.

Planning and decision making for vibrant and environmentally sustainable communities requires a systems perspective that integrates green and grey infrastructure: watershed and stormwater management; hubs and corridors for automobile, bus, rail, bicycle, pedestrian, and wildlife “traffic”; efficient energy grids and mature tree canopies to reduce carbon footprints and minimize urban heat island effect; city and regional land use plans that account for wastesheds, habitat, open spaces, working landscapes, riparian corridors, and more. A robust infrastructure system that supports sustainable development is essential to national prosperity, personal and public health, community vitality, and economic competitiveness. Green infrastructure systems, in their most robust sense, are a critical element of sustainable development.

This 2013 report is one outcome of a multi-year project funded by the US Forest Service and completed in cooperation with the National Association of Regional Councils, with the goal of mapping and evaluating the support system for green infrastructure planning in the US – a system that has changed dramatically over the study period and continues to evolve. The primary audience for this study was originally the National Green Infrastructure Community of Practice, an entity that has since ceased activities. So, while the target audience has shifted, the purpose of the project and this report remains the same: to provide green infrastructure practitioners and sponsors with a valuable reflection on how the concept emerged, how it has evolved, and where it is heading. In fact, in the same month this preface was written, the EPA released a new strategic agenda for green infrastructure in the US, and the World Resources Institute released an extensive guide to natural infrastructure investment, both of which reflect many of the same observations and recommendations that emerged from this study.

To learn more about Green Infrastructure, visit

X13 on Erhai Lake

XMNR IR Project on Integrated Water Management in China

In Spring 2013, the XMNR 2012-2013 Cohort investigated the feasibility of developing and deploying an agent-based participatory model for the Erhai Lake Basin in Yunnan Province, China that would simulate real and relative social, economic, and ecological impacts of various development decisions for the immediate and broader region, with an emphasis on water quality and availability. The user interface for this simulation model would be designed as a “serious” game in order to actively engage a broad-based audience with the content, modeled  on The (Chesapeake) Bay Game developed by the University of Virginia’s Global Water Games program that assigns strategic stakeholder roles to players to simulate the impacts of various actual development scenarios at a sub-basin and eventually a full-basin scale.  The cohort of 21 professionals with wide-ranging but complementary professional and disciplinary backgrounds worked as a team for three months to conduct preliminary research and ten days of fieldwork in China to reach the conclusions and recommendations presented in this report.  X13_IR-ReportFINAL.pdf (40 downloads)

Virginia Tech Research Center, Arlington, Virginia, dawn, full moon, exterior

How can CLiGS become an innovation community?

What is an “innovation space?” How does it differ from a “collaboration place”? What do these and similar initiatives have to do with sustainable development? (more…)


The Future of Offshore Wind Energy

In the sustainability field, engagement and buy-in are crucial for creating change from “business as usual” to a sustainable situation that takes into account the triple bottom line of people, planet, and financial. As a sustainability analyst at Verdis and graduate of Virginia Tech’s XMNR program, I’ve learned the value of stakeholder engagement and speaking to different perspectives and perceptions. (more…)

Trees showing off.

The Value of Nature to Business

Nature provides numerous benefits or “ecosystem services”.  These benefits are numerous: forests supply timber, purify air, and absorb storm water; river systems provide power, recreation, and habitat for commercially important fish; wetlands filter waste, buffer communities from flooding, and recycle nutrients. We all impact nature in our daily lives, affecting nature’s ability to continue to provide the services that we depend upon. (more…)