It is good to remind ourselves in these turbulent times that we stand at the starting line of what could be a most extraordinary chapter in the long and bumpy journey of human progress. The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the landmark climate deal in Paris in 2015 gave us all for the first time in history, a comprehensive and universal framework for jointly tackling two of the most urgent challenges of our time: stabilizing the climate and eradicating hunger and poverty. This week’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) for Sustainable Development has provided an opportunity to take stock of early progress and identify what’s needed to deliver these two agreements.
Fulfilling the promises of 2015 will depend on how they are translated into action by governments, and the extent to which they spur complementary action by actors like businesses, financial institutions, cities and the academic community. As we lay out in a new WRI commentary, achieving both sets of objectives by 2030 will require more than just doing more of the same, faster. It will require new approaches and ways of doing business.
One Common Destination
At the end of the day, climate action and SDGs are indivisible. The increasing risks of climate change undermine development gains. Curbing warming and building resilience to climate impacts will require transforming the sectors that drive development, such as energy, industrial development, agriculture and transportation – while doing so in ways that promote good development outcomes And development paths risk becoming dead-ends in the long term if they are not climate smart and environmentally sustainable.
The SDGs and climate agreement indeed share common parentage in the Rio Conference of 1992, and are best seen as two sides of the same sustainable development coin. Both call for a break with business-as-usual and a transformation of our economies and societies.
It is not surprising therefore to note how extensively the SDGs and the Paris climate deal speak to each other. Action to address the causes and consequences of climate change are woven into the SDGs, as reflected in Goal 13 on climate action and the inclusion of climate considerations in other goals and targets, such as on food, cities and water. Conversely, many nations explicitly frame their climate plans (their “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs) through a development lens. And of course, many of the climate actions set out in countries’ NDCs are aligned with many of the specific SDG targets.
Getting There Through Integration
Since SDGs cannot be achieved without decisive climate action, and climate action needs to be firmly grounded in the SDGs to succeed, a key challenge ahead of us is to foster synergistic solutions and integrated approaches where the two agendas meet. Our commentary delves into six key challenges for delivering integrated solutions at the nexus of climate action and development.
Beyond the mechanics of integration, success will require a mindset of partnership between two professional and policy communities that to date have been operating largely separately. The “development” and “climate” tribes still frequently speak distinct dialects, draw from different knowledge bases and seldom collaborate. In the past, this separation bred the deeply misguided notion that climate action and development were separate concerns, if not conflicting interests. Looking forward, we must strive for a new era of more joined-up action on climate and development, beyond any dichotomies.
Common sense alone should put to rest the notion that poor people are somehow more willing to accept daily exposure to dangerous fumes and endanger their children’s health for faster GDP growth when cleaner alternatives that can also provide long-term climate benefits are within reach.
If stabilizing our climate and achieving the SDGs represent one common destination, choices we make about how we grow and develop our economies and societies will ultimately determine if and how fast we get there. Embedded in the SDGs and the climate agreement – including the commitment to leave no one behind – is the need for transformation.
When carried out as part of a comprehensive package of transformative change, actions to address climate impacts make good sense. Take infrastructure investments: About $ 6 trillion is due to be invested every year in infrastructure globally over the next 15 years. According to a recent report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, choosing low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure would result in a capital cost increment of only $270 billion a year, or less than 5 percent. And this additional capital cost could potentially be fully offset by lower operating costs, such as from reduced expenditure on fuel. This is before even considering other co-benefits, such as significant savings on health costs from reduced air pollution. Furthermore, sizeable opportunities for innovation and greater economic efficiency are made possible by structural and technological changes that would unfold as part of this broader economic transformation. The report concludes that countries at all levels of income have the opportunity to reconcile economic growth and climate goals.
To date, the norm has mostly been for countries to have separate climate and development plans, which in turn are divorced from economic decision-making. Looking ahead, there will be a premium on integrated planning that addresses both climate and development from the outset and incorporates them fully into national economic planning and policy. This type of policymaking could put in place incentives that would direct large investments – both public and private – in ways that better serve sustainable and climate-compatible development at the same time.
National leaders have a key role to play in devising and propagating a political narrative that links development and climate goals to national aspirations, and translates them into terms that businesses and citizens can embrace. Poverty eradication and shared prosperity form a common core from which leaders can construct a broader universal agenda of transformation. The two agendas are stronger together than they are apart, and together, they make the case for an economic transformation that drives low-carbon development while leaving no one behind.