Goal 13—Taking Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change—SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement

The year 2015 marks a defining moment in the global quest for a sustainable future for 7 billion people, rising to over 9 billion by 2050.

Over the next nine months, Governments will define their vision for a post-2015 development agenda by agreeing upon a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). Meanwhile, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), these same Governments will ink a new universal agreement in December 2015 in Paris at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to both address the threat of climate change and deliver on the opportunity of combating it.

These two pathways, though coming from two different backgrounds and having their own dynamics and challenges, must be mutually supportive and interrelated, if poverty is to be eradicated, livelihoods are to be improved, prosperity is to be fostered and a healthy, functioning world is to be passed onto the next generation. This essential relationship has been recognized by Governments and society in general. The 17 proposed SDGs include SDG 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

Crucially, proposed SDG 13 underlines that the task is being advanced under the UNFCCC in order to minimize the duplication of efforts and optimize finite resources.

The Paris agreement, which for the first time will bring together all nations in common cause, has the target of limiting the global temperature rise this century to below 2°C.

In order to achieve this, the new treaty needs to put in place policies, pathways, technologies and financing to ensure that global emissions peak in no later than 10 years, trigger a deep decarbonization of the worldwide economy, and deliver climate neutrality in the second half of the century. Climate neutrality, sometimes referred to as carbon neutrality, zero net or net zero, is nothing short of restoring the balance of the planet, in terms of emissions in and emissions out, to its previous state that prevailed one and a half centuries ago.

It is going to require a significant increase in clean and renewable energies, and the sustainable management and restoration of healthy ecosystems—such as forests, soils and wetlands—that are capable of both absorbing what greenhouse gas emissions remain, while assisting communities and countries to adapt to some level of climatic impacts that will now be unavoidable.

All of these measures and actions can directly support the achievement of the SDGs in perhaps some surprising ways. Current action to combat climate change, including under the 10 year-old Kyoto Protocol, has assisted in catalyzing rapid growth and tumbling costs for renewable energies, such as wind and solar.

This is in direct support of proposed SDG 7—“Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Perhaps less obvious is that this also supports proposed SDG 8, which includes the promotion of “full and productive employment and decent work for all”.

In the United States of America, for example, employment has risen by more than 115 per cent in the solar industry in the past two years and jobs related to energy efficiency have increased by over 50 per cent. In China, more than 1.7 million people are already employed in the renewable energy sector. Furthermore, by some estimates, 7 million additional jobs could be created if government targets for wind, solar and hydro-power are met.

Today more people are employed in the renewable energy industry globally than in the oil and gas sectors. In fact, worldwide, an estimated 5.7 million people were employed directly or indirectly in the global renewable energy industry in 2012—a figure that could triple by 2030. Investing in forests or smart agriculture, including organic farming, can also improve environmental sustainability, combat climate change, generate jobs and deliver further support for the SDGs.

South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Programme generated 1 million employment opportunities during its first five-year phase and aims to swiftly create 4.5 million more. In addition to renewable energy production, the programme emphasizes wetland and forest rehabilitation and fire management. The programme even addresses social inclusion, since many of those employed come from vulnerable groups, such as single mothers. Conversely, the aspirations and underpinning targets of the proposed SDGs feed and nurture national and international ambitions to address climate change and its impacts.

Proposed SDG 9—“Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”—speaks in part to the urgency of infrastructure designed to cope with, among other things, extreme weather events or sea level rise. It also speaks to the urgency of developing cleaner and more efficient industrial processes that use far less natural resources and generate far less pollution, including greenhouse gases.

Proposed SDG 11 on cities and human settlements sets targets for 2030 on sustainable transport, resource-efficient urban areas and ones with greater resilience, echoing the forthcoming Hyogo Framework for Action on disaster risk management.

Several goals, including the proposed SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production and promoting sustainable lifestyles, support Article 6 of the UNFCCC in respect to education, training and public awareness.

Proposed SDG 14 on conservation and sustainable management of seas and oceans specifically calls for the sustainable management and protection of marine coastal ecosystems by 2020; by some estimates, the world’s seagrasses, saltmarshes and mangroves are absorbing around half the current global transport emissions.

Meanwhile, proposed SDG 12 calls for halving the per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and for reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses. This goal addresses not only an absurd waste of resources in a world of too much hunger, but also reveals an often underrated source of greenhouse gases. Estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that if food wastage was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China.

The ways in which action under the United Nations climate convention and the forthcoming Paris agreement dovetail inexorably with the proposed SDGs is long and legion. They both represent an extraordinary mobilization of understanding that the way humanity has been managing the world needs a radical reset if the future is to be one of promise and opportunity for the many rather than the few. Unchecked climate change threatens to undermine nearly two decades of development gains as a result of increasing and more intense extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms. Indeed, achieving the SDGs will be almost impossible if average global temperatures are allowed to rise above the 2°C limit.

Both the SDGs and the Paris agreement also convey an understanding that there are no quick fixes and that we need to be all together in this sustainable development endeavour over the long haul.

The proposed SDGs are aimed at success and full achievement by 2030. By then the Paris climate agreement should have catalyzed global action leading to a peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions en route to a climate neutral future.

The year 2015 may go down in the history books as a time when humanity turned the corner in respect to poverty and pollution, and took the bold and courageous steps needed to achieve true and long-lasting sustainable development.