Expert Perspectives

Leaving No One Behind in Sustainable Development Pathways

That it is the poorest and most marginalized who suffer first and worst from the effects of climate change has become a truism. Climate change may have the greatest impact on the poorest because these groups tend to be more dependent on ecosystem services than populations that are relatively better off (in all senses of the term) (IPCC 2014; World Bank 2012). In turn, disasters frequently exacerbate social inequalities and existing power dynamics, constraining people’s ability to escape poverty and leaving the most marginalized at even greater risk of being left behind (Diwakar et al. 2018 forthcoming; Lovell and Le Masson 2014). A classic vicious circle, in other words.

Eliminating extreme poverty and reducing inequality while increasing environmental sustainability and tackling the root causes of climate change is incredibly difficult to achieve; no country currently meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use (O’Neill et al. 2018). How poverty and inequality are tackled—a combined approach encapsulated by the phrase “leaving no one behind”—has clear implications for whether environmental sustainability can ever be achieved—and whether poverty eradication and inequality reduction can be sustained beyond 2030. People living in poverty tend to have more environmentally sustainable lifestyles than well-off people. But when the route to poverty reduction is the hitherto-normal “economic growth and trickle-down” model, this is incommensurate with sustainability.  Governments need to question their economic models to reduce poverty and increase environmental sustainability in an integrated way and make these efforts compatible.

Furthermore, without a focus on equity in climate change responses, policies designed to encourage emission reduction could undermine poverty reduction efforts; for instance, providing fewer incentives for agricultural fertilizer usage could decrease the income of many small-scale farmers (OECD 2012).

However, done right, efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change can support rather than hamper development objectives. A recent study by Daniel O’Neill and colleagues (2018) also finds that meeting core physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity, and the elimination of extreme poverty is likely to be achievable—albeit very challenging—without transgressing planetary boundaries, though meeting higher order needs, such as life satisfaction, for all would require resource use at two to six times the sustainable level.

That’s good news for delivering both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change in a synergistic manner. While a growing number of countries are starting in 2018 to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to global climate action and formulate “long-term low-emissions development strategies,” there is a strong need to explore ways the concept of “leaving no one behind,” a focus on those poorest and most marginalized at the core of Agenda 2030 (and which to date has largely been understood by policy makers to date as a “social” objective) can be realized at the same time and as part of climate policies.

First, though, to clarify what is meant by “leave no one behind” (LNOB). Although it may appear difficult to pin down, a clear definition of the term can be derived from a close reading of the SDG text. It entails three related concepts (Stuart and Samman 2017):

  1. Ending absolute poverty in all its forms and ensuring that those who have been left out of progress (in relative or absolute terms) catch up with those who have made greater progress.
  2. Stopping the group-based discrimination that has resulted in unequal outcomes for some disadvantaged or marginalized groups, with a new focus on people who are doubly or triply marginalized because they belong to two or more groups (known as intersectionality).
  3. Prioritizing and fast-tracking action for the furthest behind.

So to what extent, to date, is this approach being realized across the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs?

Even though the NDCs often pursue the overriding objective of poverty reduction, the World Resources Institute found that SDG 1 (end poverty) and SDG 10 (reduce inequality) were hardly addressed by the climate actions embedded within them. Among the few climate actions supporting SDG target 1.11 is the commitment of Zambia’s NDC to “reduce poverty through the creation of job opportunities and alternative livelihoods based on sustainable forest management aimed at reducing emissions.”

There are examples of NDCs underpinning Goal 10 that are more clearly aligned with LNOB, but these are still sadly few and far between:

  • Implement a decentralized program to promote interregional socioeconomic equality (Chad).
  • Recognize the need to empower groups most at risk from the short- and long-term impacts of climate change (Myanmar).
  • Emphasize that the policies and actions in an NDC can include a “cross-cutting human rights and gender perspective in order for the measures to be implemented to take into account women as important decision makers regarding energy consumption.” Such an NDC can emphasize the importance of implementation such that it does not exacerbate impacts of climate change that already have disproportionate adverse effects on women and girls (Mexico). (Northrop et al. 2016; Climate Watch 2017)

ODI has also developed a resilience metric, as part of our Leave No One Behind Index series,2 to explicitly consider the compatibility with adaptation components of countries’ NDCs as well as NAPs and NAPAs with the LNOB commitment (Manuel et al. 2018 forthcoming). In our analysis of the occurrence of LNOB-relevant words, the highest scores were seen in NDCs. Five countries—Jordan, Mali, Mexico, Peru, and Vietnam, scored relatively highly—but even here, of the 58 NDCs surveyed, almost half do not use the relevant key words even once.3 Furthermore, the scores drop further when we look only at the projects outlined in the NAPAs, which suggests that even when LNOB issues are considered they are omitted from countries’ tangible adaptation actions. It should be remembered that NDCs do not necessarily reflect national policy objectives in a comprehensive way: they were produced in a short time, often with limited consultation across ministries, and with various level of analysis. Nor was adaptation a requirement for NDCs. That said, given that NAPAs and NAPs are dedicated specifically to climate change adaptation, which discuss the communities most vulnerable to climate change in relative depth, we could expect to see greater emphasis on LNOB principles.

LNOB is not necessarily better addressed through the 2030 Agenda implementation. An assessment of countries’ Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) - reports to the United Nations of SDG implementation progress - that were presented in 2017 found that, “as reports do not provide information on data to LNOB or evaluate the impact of their policies on vulnerable groups, it is not possible to assess which policies and programs are successfully reaching the people who are furthest behind first” (Kindornay 2018). As mentioned earlier, there has been little reference to the environmental aspects of LNOB.4

It would seem that neither the Paris Agreement nor the SDGs are yet being translated into specific policy measures in a sufficiently integrated manner. As such, there is an even clearer need to better address LNOB in long-term low-emissions development strategies.

As countries do start to think about these long-term strategies, and deepen and broaden plans for SDG implementation, what elements, processes, and instruments might help them better address LNOB? Here are some germane areas to explore:

  • Policy makers should consider the distributional impacts of climate policies’ macro- and microeconomic, social, and environmental aspects. This will clarify the trade-offs between adaptation and/or mitigation and the reduction of poverty and inequality, which in turn will likely suggest mitigating policies that can “make up” the immediate loses from a specific policy. Poverty and Social Impact Analysis (PSIA)5 will be a useful tool in planning long-term low-carbon strategies to capture complex links between poverty and climate policies, and thus promote a debate on trade-offs between policy choices. This should be conducted in conjunction with environmental impact assessments, both at the strategic and project level; and the findings of both should be integrated into a policy response.
  • As the Climate and Development Knowledge Network has suggested, the formulation of the long-term low-carbon strategies could be spearheaded by a national coordination for climate change and development activities, and not only by environment ministries (Bird et al. 2017). One way to do this might be to have a planning ministry or other body that cuts across line ministries, such as a Cabinet office or unit in a president’s office, leading this planning process to make it relevant for both agendas, with a particular focus on LNOB.
  • Governments also need to ensure that those who are most marginalized and at risk of being left behind are included in decision-making, planning, and implementation. The work of Robert Chambers suggests participatory approaches (e.g., Chambers et al. 2005, which includes discussions of natural resources management as well as social issues), key among which is ensuring that affected communities are at the table as policies are being decided, and that their views of what works, and what should be prioritized, are given serious weight.
  • Priority could be given in long-term low-carbon strategies to policies that produce win-wins—that is, proactively maximizing both climate and social outcomes benefiting the most vulnerable. An example is Costa Rica’s holistic policy for conservation areas. Established with strong partnerships among the government, donors, the private sector, and civil society, this policy includes a ban on future land-use change on all forested land along with financial incentives to landowners to conserve forests instead of converting them to agricultural land. This policy approach not only increased the country’s total forest cover, reduced dependence on biomass for domestic cooking, and curbed GHG emissions, but it also improved household nutrition security and health (Machingura and Lally 2017). Planning decarbonization and adaptation pathways that prioritize actions benefiting the most vulnerable is essential to eradicate extreme poverty and curb inequalities by 2030 and beyond.
  • Planning by backcastingthat is, working backward from a specific date and plotting policy pathways that way to inform immediate and long-term decision-making—would help ensure that 2030—the SDG deadline—is a waymarker for 2050—and even longer-term horizons. This process should include consideration of how to front-load policies that will have most impact for the left behind. Countries would likely need significant support to do this: initiatives focused on long-term strategies, such as the 2050 Pathways Platform, could add LNOB to their agenda.6

Some of the above require additional research and methodological development, but many of these recommendations are within ready reach of governments now.


I would like to thank  Amy Kirbyshire, Emma Lovell, and Andrew Scott (ODI), Mathilde Bouye (WRI), and Graham Gordon (Cafod), who provided thoughtful and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.


Bird, N., C. Monkhouse, and L. Booth. 2017. 10 Propositions for Success: Integrating International Climate Change Commitment into National Development Policy. London: Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

Chambers, R., A. Cornwall, J. Gaventa, S. Musoki, and J. Pettit. 2005. Participatory Learning and Action: Critical Reflections, Future Directions. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.

Cruz, M., J. Foster, B. Quillin, and P. Schellekens. 2015. Ending Extreme Poverty and Sharing Prosperity: Progress and Policies. Policy Research Note no. 3. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Diwakar, V., E. Lovell, S. Opitz-Stapleton, and A. Shepherd. 2018 forthcoming. “Child Poverty, Disasters, and Climate Change: Examining Relationships and Assessing Implications over a Child’s Life Course.” London: ODI and UNICEF.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2014. Fifth Assessment Report, 2013–2014.

Kindornay, S. 2018. Progressing National SDG Implementation: An Independent Assessment of the Voluntary National Review Reports Submitted to the United Nations High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in 2017. Ottawa: Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

Lovell, E., and V. Le Masson. 2014. Equity and Inclusion in Disaster Risk Reduction: Building Resilience for All. London: CDKN and Overseas Development Institute.

Machingura, F., and S. Lally. 2017. The Sustainable Development Goals and Their Trade-Offs. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Manuel, M., F. Grandi, S. Manea, A. Kirbyshire, and E. Lovell. 2018 forthcoming. “The Leave No One Behind Index, 2018: Focus on Resilience.” London: Overseas Development Institute.

Northrop, E., H. Biru, A. Lima, M. Bouye, and R. Song. 2016. “Examining the Alignment between the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and Sustainable Development Goals.” Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. /publication/examining-alignment-between-intended-nationally-determined-contributions-and-sustainable.

O’Neill, D., A. Fanning, and J. Steinberger. 2018. “A Good Life for All within Planetary Boundaries.” Nature Sustainability 1: 88–95.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). 2012. “Green Growth and Developing Countries: A Consultation Draft.” Paris: OECD.

Stuart, E., and E. Samman. 2017. “Defining ‘Leave No One Behind.’” Briefing Paper. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Wilkinson, R., and K. Pickett. 2009. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. New York: Bloomsbury.

World Bank. 2012. Inclusive Green Growth: The Pathway to Sustainable Development. Washington, DC: World Bank.

1 That is, “by 2030 eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.” Note that the updated version of this figure (2011 PPP) is $1.90.

2 Resilience to climate change and disasters. The 2018 Index adds this new policy area due its importance in achieving the 2030 LNOB Agenda and its pertinence to the 2018 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF).  The indicator for resilience to climate change and disasters was calculated through text analysis. To gauge how well the “leave no one behind” principles are upheld in national adaptation policies to climate change, we looked at the occurrence of LNOB language across national adaptation documents submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including the NDCs, NAPs, NAPAs, and the developed countries’ strategies and plans. Support for producing NAPAs was the first major adaptation initiative under the UNFCCC, aimed at addressing adaptation needs in the most climate-vulnerable countries. All least developed countries, from 2004 onward, submitted these documents. The successors of these documents, the NAPs, are more flexible national planning instruments for adaptation, and all developing countries (not just LDCs) are invited to submit them. To date, nine countries have submitted their NAPs and over 80 countries have begun the NAP process. All countries have submitted the NDCs, which are primarily a vehicle to communicate national mitigation commitments. Though there is no obligation to include an adaptation component in NDCs, most countries did, and they included descriptions of adaptation goals, priorities, actions, needs, and mitigation plans. Every country submitted INDCs ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), with many updated since. In total, this analysis looked at 58 NDCs, 7 NAPs, and 15 NAPAs.

3 The key words were Poor/poverty, equitable, marginalized, women/female, children, minority/ethnic/race, caste, indigenous, disabled/disability, Hyogo/Sendai; and leave no one behind/no one left behind. Searches were also conducted for these keywords in French and Spanish.

4 Consider, however, the ODI Leave No One Behind Index (Greenhill 2017), which showed that of the 44 countries presenting national reviews, 25 are “ready” to meet “leave no one behind” commitments, while 18 are “partially ready.” Data were unavailable for one country.

5 See


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