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4 Ways to Deliver Bold Action on Climate and Justice This Year at Back-to-Back UN Summits

As students take to the streets around the globe to push for immediate action on climate change and justice, two summits set for September on climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a strategic opportunity to showcase a leap in ambition.

To be effective, these summits must address country commitments for climate action, social inclusion and other sustainable development goals together. In two recent high-level United Nations gatherings in New York and Copenhagen, leaders from government, international organizations, business and civil society groups agreed that tackling the climate and SDG agendas separately dilutes messages and can lead to inconsistent policies. We cannot build a sustainable future without urgently putting climate action at the core of all policies and investments. And as we have seen from recent protests in France, we cannot successfully advance climate action if they don’t create opportunities for all and help reduce inequalities.

The forthcoming Climate and SDG Summits should be planned jointly. They need to rally leaders around a single, compelling narrative and common priorities that step up climate action and progress for more inclusive and sustainable societies. Here are four ways to help make that happen.

1. Ramp Up Ambition for Transformational Change

With greenhouse gas emissions and  inequalities on the rise, there is no time to simply tweak existing economic systems if we are to avoid the worst consequences of a changing climate.

September will be a key moment to raise our ambition: the SDG Summit will be the first in five years to review progress on the 17 SDGs almost a third of the way towards the 2030 milestone. The Climate Action Summit will put the spotlight on high-impact actions countries can take to enhance their national climate commitments under the Paris Agreement – known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – by 2020.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked heads of state to come at the Climate Action summit not with speeches, but with plans. If more than 100 countries – a majority – announce what they will do to step up their national commitments by next year while highlighting economic, social and environmental benefits, it would inject the momentum we need to put us back on track to achieve the Paris Agreement and our sustainable development goals.

Both summits should focus on making radical changes. Countries need to set new metrics, norms and timebound targets that shift the preferences of decision makers, investors and consumers towards smarter, more responsible choices. Among the signals most needed by 2020 are an increase in carbon prices up to at least $40-80 per ton of carbon dioxide, a global phase-out of fossil fuels, new standards for sustainable buildings and infrastructures, and science-based targets for all Fortune 500 companies. Countries must also take climate commitments aligned with the 2020 SDG targets on halting deforestation, restoring degraded land and water ecosystems and adopting sustainable city plans.

2. Leave No One Behind and Ensure a Just Transition

Both the SDG and Climate Summits should also spur countries to fulfill the promise to leave no one behind in building sustainable economies. This pledge, central to the 2030 Agenda, not only involves ending extreme poverty and reducing inequalities by 2030, but also prioritizing the poorest and most vulnerable so that they make faster progress than those who are better off.

Most countries’ initial NDCs lacked specific measures to help enhance social equity. There is a need to better assess and monitor social impacts of climate actions and take adequate measures to minimize and offset any regressive back-sliding. For instance, Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050 and Ghana’s 2018 National Dialogue on Decent Work and Just Transition require regular impact assessments of climate actions on jobs and welfare of low-income households. To avoid any fiscal burden for low-income taxpayers, Canada’s redistributive approach to carbon pricing also gives back more money to 70 percent households through tax credits than they spend on carbon taxes.

We also need to highlight climate solutions that take into account existing inequalities and are designed to benefit the least well-off. Such actions include bonuses supporting retrofit work to reduce energy poverty in France and Colombia’s land-tenure reforms enabling indigenous communities to protect their forests and improve livelihoods.

3. Scale Up the Best Solutions

September presents a major opportunity to scale up impactful solutions that deliver multiple benefits for climate action, sustainable economy and social inclusion. Examples of actions to be taken by 2020 and offering $26 trillion opportunities have been identified by Mission 2020 and WRI in six milestones – in energy, transport, land use, industry, infrastructure and finance. These include scaling up renewable energies, shifting public transportation fleets entirely to electric buses and trains, decarbonizing infrastructures and heavy industries, and reducing food loss and waste.

The summits can build and strengthen coalitions of countries, cities and companies around breakthrough solutions, such as Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 or the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action, while increasing the ambition of those initiatives to reach tipping points needed for transformational change.

Quantified benefits for the SDGs at the national level will help build momentum around climate solutions. A new report from the Indonesian government shows that a low-carbon development strategy can create 15.3 million jobs and reduce extreme poverty by 4.2% by 2045. The Mexican government also analyzed the contribution of its climate commitments to the SDGs in 2018 and is now quantifying top co-benefits to mobilize all institutions and businesses. For instance, treating urban and industrial waste water to adapt the productive system to water scarcity will save the equivalent of one sixth of the water used for irrigation in country.

4. Define Long-term Goals for Net-zero Emissions and Equity

All countries need long-term goals for carbon neutrality and equity, such as zero-emission energy, building and transport systems, 100% renewables and inequality reduction. Driving systemic transformations requires long-term horizons, and decision makers and investors look for long-term policy and fiscal certainty to take action.

The preparation of long-term zero-emissions development strategies should be much more inclusive and linked with the formulation of long-term development plans and national visions or ad hoc nationwide debate. The definition of long-term goals offers a great opportunity to bring together government, civil society and businesses and engage citizens to shape a vision and aspirational goals. Such inclusive processes can foster ownership of the goals, fight the feeling of disempowerment that citizen experience in many countries, expand mobilization for action and enhance accountability of government and private actors.

The clock is ticking. We have only a few months to make the SDG and climate summits a success. Everyone has a role to play to enhance mobilization, political pressure and ambition. We cannot miss this opportunity.

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