The SDGs can turn-around Climate Change

How does climate change fit within the Sustainable Development Goals?

Republished from the Carbon Brief 

On Friday in New York, countries will adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will guide global development up to 2030.

The SDGs take the form of 17 goals, accompanied by 169 targets that give precise information about what should be achieved.

© Elmari Joubert/Great Stock/Corbis
They do not skimp on ambition. If countries succeed in meeting the goals, by 2030 there will be an end to poverty, hunger, child labour, AIDS and various other problems that blight millions of lives globally.

Climate change plays an important role in what the UN is calling the "post-2015 development agenda". "Sustainable development" - a notoriously difficult term to define - becomes impossible unless global temperature rise is tackled, according to the final document:

"Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and its adverse impacts undermine the ability of all countries to achieve sustainable development."

Not only has climate change been given its own, dedicated target, but it is also integrated into almost all of the other goals. Many of the targets directly reference the need to tackle climate change and its impacts in some form or another.

What was the process?

Governments instigated the process of designing the SDGs in June 2012, when they met in Brazil for the Rio+20 conference, 20 years after the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Here, it was decided that there should be a new set of goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - a more modest set of eight goals that are set to expire in 2015. These would continue to build on Agenda 21, the 700-page guidebook for development adopted by the UN in 1992.

The MDGs registered many successes: the number of people living in extreme poverty declined by more than half; more than 6.2m malaria deaths were averted; and development assistance from developed countries increased by 66%, according to the 2015 progress report.

However, it also points out that there are limitations to their achievements, with progress patchy across regions, and hundreds of millions of people still living in extreme poverty.

The SDGs aim to fill this gap, and this time they are stressing that no one should be left behind. The SDGs also elevate the issue of environmental sustainability, which was missing from the MDGs.

How are they different from the MDGs?

There are high hopes that the SDGs will be more successful than the MDGs. Bernadette Fischler, executive advisor at WWF UK, who followed the negotiations, tells Carbon Brief that the process was more open and inclusive this time around. She said:

"The Millennium Development Goals were really put together by a bunch of middle-aged, white guys somewhere in the basement of the UN, basically, at the exclusion of other parties. It took the MDGs about five years to take off, also because there was quite a bit of pushback.

"Countries, especially developing countries, were a bit suspicious of this agenda, and that was completely different to the SDGs. With the SDGs, everybody was part of the creation of the agenda, which is maybe why it's such a broad and inclusive agenda."

The SDGs are also different qualitatively to the MDGs, offering a more systemic approach to tackling the world's problems, says Kitty van der Heijden, director of the World Resources Institute Europe.

This should also help to frame the new goals, not just as something for the developing world, but for everyone. She said:

"It is a truly global action agenda, whereas the MDGs were largely about an agenda for the south, with the role of the north just being the funders. This agenda is as much about what happens there in the south, as about what happens here in the developed economies. This is not about development cooperation like the MDGs, but it is about a structural transformation of our economy in all countries, for all sectors and for all people, and the great thing is it will be adopted universally."

Climate change

The SDGs cover a range of topics, but it is hard to ignore the way in which climate change is woven throughout the 17 goals.

The thirteenth goal in the SDGs sees governments pledging to: "Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts."

This is accompanied by five underlying targets. These are:

13.1 Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries
13.2 Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning
13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning
13.a Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible
13.b Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalized communities

(Note that the first three are targets for the goal; the fourth and fifth, labelled with letters, provide direction about how to implement the targets. This applies throughout the SDGs.)

The document acknowledges that the UNFCCC, the agency responsible for overseeing the international climate deal this December, remains the driving force within the UN for pushing action on climate change. During the negotiations, some parties expressed concerns about how the SDG and UNFCCC processes would operate in parallel, without interfering with each other.

There is also a goal dedicated to energy. This is a pledge to: "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all."

This, too, comes with five associated goals. These are:

7.1 By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services
7.2 By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
7.3 By 2030, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency
7.a By 2030, enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology
7.b By 2030, expand infrastructure and upgrade technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and landlocked developing countries, in accordance with their respective programmes of support

However, references to climate change don't stop at these goals. The need to tackle rising emissions and prepare communities for the impacts of climate change is embedded throughout the document, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely.

The first goal, for instance, is to end poverty. But this includes a target to reduce the exposure and vulnerability of the poor to climate-related extreme events.

The second goal is to end hunger. One of the targets involves ensuring that food production systems are able to adapt to climate change.

The goal relating to education includes a target that all learners should be educated in sustainable development and how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

These are just a few examples of the many places in which climate change is woven throughout the SDGs.


The SDGs are not legally binding, which means that it is up to individual countries to implement the goals and targets set out within the document. It stresses that every country retains "full, permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity".

However, every country has been involved in the three-year process of designing and implementing the document. It is both accepted by all and applicable to all, taking into account each country's distinct national circumstances.

This consensus was not easy to achieve, but it should make the job of implementing the SDGs easier over the next 15 years, says WWF-UK's Fischler. She tells Carbon Brief:

"Everybody was involved. They really were fighting to the end, so they invested a lot of emotions and brainpower and diplomatic weight in this process, so the ownership is here already. I think it's much more likely that implementation is going to happen faster, and people feel more like it's their own, that it's their agenda. They can now implement it together - rather than something that was imposed on them."

The document also sets out some specifics about how the SDGs will be implemented, monitored and funded - although finalising the details remains a job for future UN meetings.

Goal 17 is dedicated to implementation. This includes targets to mobilise more financial resources and promote the development and dissemination of environmentally sound technologies in developing countries. It also covers capacity building and trade.

The document makes clear that implementing the goals is a task for everyone - governments, civil society, the private sector and the UN - in what is termed a "Global Partnership".

The UN, for instance, has launched a "Technology Facilitation Mechanism", which will include an online platform to provide information on science, technology and programmes that could help countries to achieve the goals. There will also be an annual two-day meeting to discuss such developments.

There will also be an effort to track progress on the goals over the next 15 years. The follow-up programme will take place at a regional, national and international level, and a set of global indicators will be developed to show how effectively the goals are being implemented.

A global review by a high-level political forum will be primarily based on nationally collected data, which illustrates the importance of securing the goodwill of the countries behind the goals.

The issue of how the goals will be funded was dealt with at the Financing For Development conference, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 2015.

There is already evidence that some governments are looking to embed the SDGs into their decision-making. For instance, the Welsh government recently passed the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which explicitly mentions the need to consider the goals in future reports on Welsh development, and puts the concept of sustainability at the heart of policymaking.


The SDGs set out an ambitious plan of action for the next 15 years. As well as setting the wider development agenda for the world, it could also bolster the UN's efforts to tackle climate change through a new climate agreement.

But, unlike the UNFCCC, the goals do not treat climate change as a subject that takes place in a vacuum.

There are many hopes resting on the development agenda for post-2015. The biggest is, perhaps, that the need for low-emission, climate resilient communities will be integrated into wider efforts to end poverty, hunger and inequality over the course of the century.

23 Sep 2015, 13:50 by Sophie Yeo

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