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Time to Leap Forward to Transformation

This article was originally posted on Thomson Reuters News Foundation.


What a year! For the first time, two universal agendas – the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change -- demand deep transformation rather than incremental, business-as-usual approaches, and governments have actually signed up. This is what historic opportunity looks like. Now we must ensure that we tackle the 21st century’s most complex challenges head-on and in an intertwined way.

Never has the need for solutions been more urgent. Every month in 2016 has set a high temperature record, putting the year on track to be the hottest since modern record-keeping began, as 2015 and 2014 were before it. Wildfires have cropped up not just in arid areas like the U.S. Southwest and California but also in Alaska, western Canada and Siberia. Extraordinary storms – the equivalent of six months’ rain falling in three days – caused devastating floods in Louisiana.

The September 25 anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a ripe moment to take stock of progress over the last 12 months.

On September 3, 2016, the United States and China formally joined the Paris Agreement, putting the agreement within reach of entering into force this year. This is a powerful indicator that momentum for transformation is already underway.

One-hundred eighty-nine countries, whose combined greenhouse emissions make up 98.8 percent of the global total, have offered plans for how they intend to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. Some of those plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, show a shifting landscape that could re-order how we see developed and developing countries as they face the climate challenge.

As countries set climate action priorities, links to the SDGs become clear and critical. The inter-related nature of poverty eradication and climate mitigation and adaptation is starting to have an effect on how policy-makers think.

Looking at the world through the related prisms of the NDCs and SDGs presents a multi-dimensional picture that can’t be seen by looking at either one alone. In this 3-D view, no country is all rich or all poor, though all have responsibilities and needs that are essential and interrelated. Barbados has a higher gross domestic product than Bulgaria, so the Caribbean island nation is rich by that measure – but Bulgaria is in the OECD. Saudi Arabia’s GDP is more than 1 percent of the global total, but it dropped steeply as its oil-based economy weathered shocks in a volatile energy market. China and the United States are the world’s two largest economies, yet both have pockets of poverty.

This broad spectrum of development is the backdrop for delivering on these two agendas. In a world where China and Mexico are both donors and recipients of development aid, we are moving away from traditional notions of rich and poor. Only by working collaboratively and coherently and managing global and local trade-offs intelligently will we be able to deliver well-being for all, now and into the future.

Consider the case of a cabinet-level transport minister. Because of the SDGs and NDCs, that minister can’t think only about transport; that official needs to deal with energy, housing, education and other variables that play into moving people from one place to another – all of which have critical roles to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation. It’s a way of pulling people out of their comfortable siloes toward more cost-effective solutions. Revolutions can start when mindsets shift.

To kick-start transformative action, we need to go beyond incremental change. Without ambitious climate action, we risk losing decades’ worth of development gains. It is imperative to translate the impact of climate action and poverty eradication so that decision-makers around the world understand the pivotal benefits of sustainable, inclusive development – and the long-term costs of locking in high-carbon technologies and methods. Together the NDCs and SDGs can offer persuasive, practical pathways forward.

The momentum is there. Approval of the Paris Agreement is possible just nine months after it was negotiated – warp speed in the world of international negotiations. The SDGs have begun to shift the tenor of the dialogue on development and sectoral priorities. Now we need to put compelling numbers on the table.

This historic year, as the SDGs and Paris Agreement move from inspiring commitments towards real-world implementation, is the time to leap toward the future – and keep on going.

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