Using biodiversity and energy justice to resolve conflicts between Sustainable Development Goals

Dr Isabel Jones, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow, Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Stirling

The UN has set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which – taken together – aim to create a better, fairer, world by through ending poverty, urgently addressing climate change, and ending inequality. The Goals recognise that these ambitions are interconnected, but progress towards one goal can produce obstacles towards another. In a contribution to the COP26 bite-sized lecture series, Dr Isabel Jones reflects on her recent research, exploring how biodiversity and energy justice can resolve these tensions. Watch above or read the transcript below.

Hello, I’m Dr. Isabel Jones, a research fellow in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling. Today, I’m going to talk about my research, which focuses on using biodiversity and energy justice to resolve conflicts between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I’m also going to introduce some exciting new research that everyone listening can get involved with and directly contribute to helping solve global challenges surrounding renewable energy generation, biodiversity conservation and the prosperity of people and communities. 

There are 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs – including targets for zero hunger, thriving communities and a just transition to affordable renewable energy generation. 

All of the 17 goals are connected, and what this can mean is that pursuing one goal may be at the expense of another. We call this a trade-off. As different people have different priorities and objectives there can therefore be conflicts between people or stakeholders and between the SDGs themselves, such conflicts and trade-offs prevent us from achieving sustainable development.  

For example, hydropower dam development can help meet targets for renewable energy generation and infrastructure development. However, building a dam on a river can flood people’s homes and destroy habitats and ecosystems that are important for biodiversity. By disrupting the natural flow of the river, habitats and fisheries downstream can also be severely impacted. 

Many people rely on healthy functioning ecosystems for their food and income. So, while energy is generated, which of course can be a benefit to people, the social and environmental costs of hydropower dams can be extensive.  

Moreover, the knowledge and opinions of local people who are or will be affected by dam construction may not be fully considered in the decision-making process, which has implications for meeting sustainable development goals centred on equity and justice. Dams have been built all over the world in all major habitat types and on at least half of our large river systems. It has been estimated that between 40 and 80 million people have been permanently displaced because of dam construction. 

My research seeks to understand what global sustainable development goals such as renewable energy generation mean for biodiversity and people from local river dependent people and communities through to decision makers who are part of intergovernmental agreements and high-level decision making. Core questions surround: how people’s priorities differ? Are different trade-offs being made depending on where you are in the world? How can global decision-making be made more equitable? If hydropower dams need to be part of the energy mix 

How can we make them better for people and biodiversity? 

However, there have been significant barriers to conducting the intended research programme recently, and we don’t yet know how long these barriers might be in place. After some re-thinking and re-imagining, I would like to introduce you to Power Up! a video game for mobile phones in which players take on the role of sustainable development decision makers. Players make choices about how to manage their game world landscape and need to decide where to build a hydropower dam and how big it should be. 

Players immediately begin to see the consequences of their choices and how the landscape begins to change. The amount and quality of river biodiversity (represented by fish) and land 

biodiversity (represented by forests) can all change; as can the size and prosperity of communities. Energy generation of the hydropower dam can also change throughout the game. 

Through the game, players can choose to invest their resources, which can change depending on the amount of energy generated by that hydropower dam. How players invest resources in the game can indicate how people value different aspects of sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, community prosperity and energy generation. The consequences of choices made is summarised and tracked so players know how well they’re doing. 

By collecting data on in-game decisions, we can understand how many different people approach difficult trade-offs in sustainable development decision making. Providing a platform for everyone to contribute their perspectives on sustainable development priorities is really important. Everyone from the public through to decision makers, part of Intergovernmental Agreements are invited to play. By getting involved, players will all contribute to building global data set that will be analysed and summarised to help inform sustainable development decision making. 

There are two phases of gameplay planned. The first is open when anyone in the world can play the game in different languages for free. The second is working with specific people and groups because it’s very important to work with people who have lived experience of dam construction. We will also be playing the game in workshops in places like the Brazilian Amazon, which have significant existing and planned dam construction. 

It’s critical that the knowledge and priorities of people who will be most affected by dams are fully represented and be part of the decision-making process. 

If you would like to get involved and actively contribute to the science of sustainable development, I invite you to search for Power Up! in the Google Play and App Store to download the game and pay for free. Thank you so much for being part of this exciting research!  

Thank you for listening and please get in touch if you’d like to find out more. 

Theme by the University of Stirling