Lucy Saye, Melissa Leitner, Shyam Gharial and Thrinayani Ramakrishnan discuss how the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement are aligned in their aim to balance climate action and poverty eradication
The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 by all 193 UN member states heralded a new era. The 17 goals aim to address key global challenges by uniting the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability, reinforced by strong partnerships and peacebuilding. They are an evolution of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused on developing countries and measured success through national averages.
The SDGs ensure universal responsibility for transforming the planet by 2030. They are implemented through the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which provides plans for mobilising finance and resources. Progress against the 169 underlying targets is monitored through a framework of indicators for each target. Achieving the SDGs could create 380m new jobs by 2030, targeting a shared ownership structure where no one is left behind.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has reversed progress due to spiralling global unemployment, although one recent sustainable development report did show an improvement in SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) due to increased worldwide access to digital communications.
An SDG for climate action
Climate change has become our most urgent global problem, and receives more attention than other sustainability issues. While the MDGs broadly asked for environmental protection and focused inadequately on risk reduction, SDG 13 is specifically devoted to climate action.
SDG 13’s five targets and eight indicators capture the multiple characteristics required for climate risk mitigation:
- Adaptation: Even if we could achieve a net-zero planet today, global temperatures would continue to rise for some years. As the warming climate intensifies natural disaster frequency and severity, our capacity to adapt and be resilient to droughts, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other climate-related hazards will be essential. As of April 2020, 118 countries and territories had in place national and/or local disaster risk reduction strategies aligned to the Sendai Framework, which provides concrete actions that help protect development gains from disaster risk.
- Integration: Climate change measures for adaptation and emission reduction must be integrated into the way countries set plans, policies and strategies for the future.
- Knowledge: Countries are required to improve human and institutional capacity for addressing climate change through awareness-raising and in primary, secondary and tertiary education curricula. The data that is needed to track this target reliably is currently unavailable.
- Developing country support: Developed nations need to make financial commitments to support the least developed nations’ ability to deal with climate change. Most notably, there is a target commitment for wealthier industrialised countries to mobilise US$100bn per year in ‘new and additional’ climate finance, starting in 2020.
The pace and level of action on SDG 13 has been insufficient: it is now among a handful of the 17 goals that have fallen behind their starting positions. Global temperatures are on track to rise by as much as 3.2°C by the end of the century. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for countries to reassess priorities and rebuild their economies to be greener and more climate-resilient.
A systems thinking approach
The SDGs should be seen in the context of a wider complex system, and complex systems cannot be fully understood by studying each part in isolation. Recognising the interactions and feedback loops that drive emergent behaviour is critical. Without systems thinking we, at best, incompletely understand the system and, at worst, risk actions that inhibit other goals.
A joint report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examines the relationship between climate change and biodiversity loss (SDG 15: Life on Land). The report states that ‘only by considering climate and biodiversity as parts of the same complex problem, which also includes the actions and motivations and aspirations of people, can solutions be developed that avoid maladaptation and maximise the beneficial outcomes’. This statement echoes the spirit of the SDGs in the way it recognises the interconnectedness of human and environmental outcomes.
The reciprocal relationship between climate change and other SDGs is strong. Failure to deliver on climate goals has consequences for other SDGs, and climate adaptation and mitigation solutions depend on the fulfilment of other goals. Two SDGs, 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and 10 (Reduced Inequalities), are particularly important, connecting other goals more tightly within the network. For climate change, SDG 12 is essential because of the need to reduce our economy’s material throughput, while SDG 10 facilitates a smooth social transition.
The year 2015 heralded not only the SDGs, but also the Paris Agreement. This legally binding international treaty aims to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C – preferably less than 1.5°C – and recognises that poverty reduction (SDG 1) and climate change are intrinsically linked. Climate change causes devastating natural and humanitarian disasters, destroying homes and personal assets, which can drive people into poverty – especially when the resources needed to rebuild are lacking. Additionally, communities living in poverty may not have the means to decarbonise their economies.
“Considering co-dependencies is crucial if we are to prioritise solutions that avoid negative impacts on other partsof the system”
SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) highlights the fact that not only are sustainable food production systems crucial to achieving climate goals, but also that it is necessary to build resilient agricultural practices to ensure food security, cut poverty and reduce rural populations’ vulnerability to climate change impacts. Many people living in poverty are dependent on income from agriculture, livestock and marine life. When natural disasters strike, crops and livestock may be lost, meaning food prices spike.
Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are radically altering aquatic habitats, while freshwater ecosystems are impacted by changes in water temperature, flow and loss of habitats for marine life (SDG 14: Life Below Water). This results in a vicious cycle whereby livelihood and income sources are decimated amid food price inflation. Water access for agriculture, sanitation and health is another concern (SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation).
SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) enable climate action. Respectively, they strive for fossil fuel energy alternatives, better infrastructure and better transport systems.
Considering these co-dependencies is crucial if we are to prioritise solutions that deliver on multiple goals and avoid negative impacts on other parts of the system. Significant efforts are therefore required to advance the SDGs and accelerate progress on the Paris Agreement. An IPCC report on the impacts that would be caused
by global warming of 1.5°C found that, while development and adaptation will prevent some climate change impacts, most of its effects could be prevented by 2030 with a focus on poverty reduction. Climate change adaptation should accompany poverty eradication efforts in a targeted manner.
A just transition
Tackling climate change is often considered separately from other environmental and social issues. The Paris Agreement’s text around mitigating and adapting to climate change ‘in the context of sustainable development and with a concerted effort to eradicate poverty’ has largely been overlooked. In part, that may be due to proponents of free markets, deregulation and individualism denouncing sustainability issues as forms of socialism.
Climate change poses far-reaching systemic risks and political upheaval that warrant governments’ attention. First order impacts of climate change, such as weather pattern changes, are followed by many higher order impacts. Persistent drought can cause hunger, leading to mass migration away from drought-ridden lands and towards over-populated districts in cities; this can cause ethnic tension and extreme political movements, risking conflict. This narrative has been used by some researchers to describe how climate change was one factor sparking the Syrian war. Although some have challenged this argument, the individual links in this chain of events have played out many times in the past and show that multiple issues need to be considered when adapting to climate change.
In terms of climate change mitigation, there are signs that broader sustainability issues and their interlinked nature are becoming better appreciated. The importance of social factors in limiting climate change is captured in the need for a just transition. This aims to ensure that people who rely on polluting industries are not left behind, as well as to improve outcomes for historically marginalised communities. Without it, the quality of life of those already struggling could deteriorate, and we will all be worse off for it.
Diversity and inclusion must be at the heart of achieving climate goals: drawing in new perspectives, inviting solutions that may not otherwise be conceived of, and pursuing policies that are fair and uplifting to people of all ethnicities, classes, genders and generations.
COP26 in Glasgow provides an opportunity for policymakers to emphasise why sustainable development is critical in limiting global warming and reversing inequality arising from austerity and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lucy Saye is a life and ERM actuary at Aviva and deputy chair of the IFoA Sustainability Board
Melissa Leitner is a life and health actuary working at Swiss Re and a member of the IFoA Sustainability Board
Shyam Gharial is an investment consultant at LCP and a member of the IFoA Sustainability Board
Thrinayani Ramakrishnan is an actuarial trainee at Hodge Life Assurance Company and a member of the IFoA Sustainability Board
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