Expert Perspectives

Increasing the Ownership of Long-term Climate Plans by Integrating Sustainable Development Goals

To support the Paris Agreement on climate change, countries have agreed to develop plans to decarbonize, with the goal of having a net-zero emissions economy by midcentury. The year 2050 offers a direction of travel, but that time frame can seem intangible to many in industry, municipalities, and the media. The question looming large is how to make such targets relevant in shorter-term decision making. That is, if a country or city’s long-term goal is to achieve zero emissions by 2050, what choices must be made (or sidestepped) today to avoid locking in high-carbon trajectories in the long run?

Here I make the case that successful long-term plans will require wider ownership, beyond the narrow scope of a decarbonization. Decarbonization by 2050 means a decrease in our use of fossil fuels, a notion that faces resistance as the landscape of winners and losers in the economy changes with the phaseout and uptake of technologies. We know the reactions well: incumbents argue that bigger emission cuts are costly for companies and hurt jobs and that the technology shift is not feasible. Some industries even hide the real impact of their pollution, as we saw with “Dieselgate,” the scandal surrounding Volkswagen’s programming of its diesel engines to meet requirements of the U.S. Clean Air Act only in testing, while polluting at much higher levels in real-world driving.

To earn credibility, these long-term plans must offer a solid technical case that shows that decarbonization is not only desirable but also feasible. The trade-offs associated with these choices must also be transparent. Sharing these plans widely will be key to opening up debates about the best choices to make by when.

Our debates on energy and climate, however, are rarely anchored in rationality or facts alone. Prejudice, ideology, or a combination thereof often frame the debates. Even when the technical case is made and benefits demonstrated, biases among lobbyists and the media can tip the scales against climate action. I saw this in the run-up to Paris in several countries in Latin America where the solid technical case for mitigation actions—and the demonstration of benefits such as cleaner air and job creation—was dismissed and the voices of skeptical industry associations were amplified with a simplistic narrative that ambitious mitigation targets would hurt competitiveness. As a result, despite years spent creating solid mitigation planning scenarios (MAPS), Colombia, Chile, and Peru presented national contributions widely considered to be inadequate (see, for example, Climate Action Tracker analysis1).

The lesson is clear: the new generation of 2050 plans will succeed if they attract wide range of stakeholders. Ownership needs to increase so that a coalition supports decarbonization. This coalition must go beyond climate experts, UN diplomats, and protectors of the “Paris legacy.”

Another lesson is that the story must go beyond “carbon.” Having well-defined mitigation pathways—and the economics thereof—is not the story in itself. In order to engage society, legislators, the media, and other stakeholders, the story will need to be bigger. Instead of being a story about greenhouse gases, it must be a story about us, as a society. What kind of growth do we want? How do we make smarter, cleaner development choices? How do we protect ourselves from climate change?

We also must expand the framework of the 2050 plans so that we can make a more effective case for decarbonization today, in this year’s election, in negotiations over the next national budget, in the next energy or transport bill. The Paris Agreement has been helpful because it provides a legal anchor. But the nationally determined contribution (NDC) is not a concept that lends itself to national politics. In fact, climate, as such, is not easy as a stand-alone political issue. Other “hooks” are available, however, especially the imperatives of modernization, clean technology, and resilient cities.

For countries designing these midcentury plans, a key task in coming years will be to build coalitions that support critical reforms when incumbents try to derail them or water them down. Such coalitions will counterbalance and overcome pressures to stop or delay decarbonization efforts. They will challenge the myths about the costs of change and make the benefits visible. Coalitions can also help sustain plans over time, through changes in administration and political parties in power. For example, in Costa Rica a moratorium on oil exploration and exploitation was put in place in the early 2000s. Thus far it has been supported by four presidents from three different parties. Not all these politicians believed in the moratorium, some even tried to end it, but a supportive constituency meant that any attempt to end it would face fierce opposition.

In Latin America, as other agendas compete for attention (from the war on narco-traffickers to illegal immigration), the imperative is to persuade the private sector that cleaner growth is needed. This is especially true of extractive industries, which often enjoy close ties to politicians. No long-term plan in our region will succeed if these industries seek to block them. That is a lesson learned on the road to Paris. These industries were skeptical. Going forward, how do we attract them and make them part of the effort?

There is also the citizen dimension, which is the field we work in at Costa Rica Limpia. Who owns the long-term transition? Who says “our transition”? Making people part of the of the long-term transition is critical. People will support changes if we are able to demonstrate concrete gains in their everyday well-being. Are we doing enough to show city dwellers that switching to zero-emissions cars, buses, and trains will be in their best interest? Many initiatives are working on this, from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group to mobility-based organizations. The momentum for a sustainable urban agenda is growing and is expected to continue to build over the next decade as we confront the reality of unsustainable urbanization patterns, especially in emerging economies.

Finally, there is the reality of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), a concept that has impelled local processes for planning and stakeholder engagement. Why not integrate 2050 plans to decarbonize the economy and 2030 plans to deliver SDGs? Both processes are taking off in many countries, and often they advance with little connection to each other. The risk is duplication of effort. A country that supports the transformation of the energy and transport system, encourages zero pollution targets in industry, promotes smart agriculture, and commits to invest in climate resilience is likely also a country that will take the SDGs seriously. Seen the other way around, a developing country that invests in SDG governance and plans also could be well positioned to develop 2050 climate plans. The overlaps between the two processes are mostly in the areas of “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” (SDG 7), “healthy lives and . . . well-being for all” (SDG 3), and “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” (SDG 13).

Clearly the trade-off is that the SDGs are broad and that a process may open up where “everything is a priority.” Identifying actions that focus on a set of fundamental actions is therefore key to delivering development with less carbon and less exposure to the worst climate risks. Where do the climate and sustainable development processes meet?

Building winning coalitions to manage the transition

In Costa Rica a supportive coalition emerged that led to passage of a law promoting zero-emissions electric mobility. The coalition, led by members of Congress and activists for clean mobility and climate action, including our organization, included electricity and e-mobility experts, owners of electric cars, car dealerships, the public energy utility, and some energy cooperatives. This was the story of a new national aspiration for zero-emissions mobility, for cleaner air and reduced imports of foreign oil. The e-mobility agenda was co-owned, and many who joined do not view climate targets as their main goal. Some members of the coalition prioritize the promotion of new technologies. This coalition is independent of the current administration, a critical fact as we transition to a new government that will run the country for the next four years.

In Norway, a coalition of experts and advocates of electric mobility worked together at the end of 2017 to prevent a reduction of the benefits for electric cars. They argued that the measure was premature and that it would reduce the demand for zero-emissions electric cars. They showed the Ministry of Finance that Norway would miss the target it had set for itself. As a result, the government reconsidered its position and electric car incentives were extended without modification for four more years.

As a practitioner, I see the architecture of the 2050 plans as ready for an innovation. Thus far it has been too narrowly focused on the experts that are not interested in political economy dynamics and in ministries of environment with little influence on broader governmental plans on energy and transport. 2050 plans need far more support from Presidents and their key members of cabinets decarbonization outside the team? Often cabinets are divided along ministerial lines, with environment ministries pushing for greener growth and plans to meet the Paris Agreement while finance or industry ministries argue for energy and industry choices that increase emissions and even pollution.  How to break this pattern is a central task for the community working on 2050 plans.

In some countries, the SDGs inspire a sense of opportunity whereas the Paris Agreement often connotes a limitation. As a result, the 2030 SDGs are gaining traction in the private sector. Several processes include them. That is the case in Costa Rica.2 The coalition in favor of the SDGs is bigger and more varied than the ecosystem of stakeholders supporting the mitigation targets or the NDC. In September 2016, the government, nongovernmental organizations, and companies launched a “national pact” for the SDGs. The pact, billed as the first of its kind, brought together a cross-section of Costa Rican society. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches were all represented, as were older CEOs of big companies, young entrepreneurs, representatives from urban collectives, journalists, open-data activists, academics, and of course members of the sustainable development community working on carbon neutrality programs, ecosystem services, and waste and water management. The 17 goals cannot be addressed by a single ministry or industry or civil society group. Nor are they the sole responsibility of the state. The Ministry of Economic Planning facilitates the cocreation of solutions, and the UN Development Programme supports the pact, but these solutions come from the pact’s stakeholders.

I see here a great opportunity to link the SDGs, Paris targets (NDCs and long-term plans), and the people. This is because the domestic ecosystem of urban entrepreneurs and sustainable transport advocates keeps growing—especially in emerging economies as our countries grown more confident. This encourages the work of companies, car dealerships, and ministries of environment and transportation. We need to believe in our own ability to innovate, we cannot wait from “a recipe” from abroad. A new generation of experts work with municipalities to enable urban planning innovations from the ground up and on bike paths and empowering pedestrians. A long-term decarbonization plan will have broader and more local ownership if it builds in these ongoing dynamics rather than being a stand-alone process disconnected from practitioners.

The landing point for this note is process and political dynamics. Building better strategies on paper (content, quality, details) will not be enough. We need to think bigger and face the political dynamics that change entails. The technical must be complemented by a decisive approach to building supportive coalitions willing to tackle the resistance to change underpin decarbonization. Stakeholder engagement, as such, will be insufficient too: the strategy we need for building a supportive coalition (outside government) will need to be a far more deliberate process if we want to see long-term plans not only executed but also sustained over time.


1 See for example http://climateactiontracker.org/  and in the section http://climateactiontracker.org/countries.html

2 Monica Araya, “Building Coalitions to Support SDGs in Costa Rica,” The Elders, September 27, 2016, https://theelders.org/article/building-coalitions-support-sdgs-costa-rica.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.