It’s a big year for climate politics, and the attention of the international climate community is fixed on United Nations climate talks taking place in Paris this December, which aim to sign off a global deal on climate change.
But this year will see another two UN summits focusing on development that will have big repercussions for international climate politics. In July, the UN will host a conference on financing for development in Addis Ababa to discuss how to pay for global development. Then, in September the world’s nations will meet in New York to agree a set of Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs), successors to the hugely influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) created fifteen years ago.
The Addis meeting has an ambitious set of goals that would expand and protect future financing to address climate change. The New York meeting seeks to adopt a new, universal set of goals that are to guide international development through 2030 and climate change is expected to be one of those goals.
Both have the potential to push the world closer to a global climate deal, but if they go badly, they could also undermine efforts to reach an agreement in Paris.
Setting the development agenda
Back in 2000, heads of state and senior diplomats met in New York to agree what became the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs comprised eight things world leaders wanted to achieve by 2015, covering poverty reduction, education, reduced child mortality, gender equality, health and sustainability. The UN described them as an agreement to “[address] extreme poverty in its many dimensions”.
While the world has done a mixed job of meeting the goals, which expire this year, they’ve been hugely influential in shaping the development agenda. So much so that they will be replaced with a new set of priorities for international development that the UN is calling Sustainable Development Goals.
The UN General Assembly meets in New York in September to adopt the SDGs, which cover the same range of issues as the MDGs, but are broader, and include a much more obvious focus on sustainability.
The draft set of SDGs proposed by the UN reflects how the prominence of climate change has grown since the millennium. While the MDGs contained a broad goal to “ensure environmental sustainability”, the draft SDGs get more specific: The world should “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”, and “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.”
The top lines sound good, but what about the detail? The subclauses of the climate goal require the world to integrate climate change planning into national policy, make sure institutions have the capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change, improve the resilience of society to deal with climate impacts, and provide ‘awareness raising’ on the issue of climate change.
If that all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s worth noting that many of these things were basically agreed by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change back in 1992. Perhaps to the disappointment of some, the SDGs aren’t offering a new analysis of the problems of climate change or any new and particularly ambitious solutions, and they won’t set binding climate goals. That’s not the point.
Instead, by pulling climate into top development goals, the UN is taking a familiar set of approaches to dealing with climate change and trying to embed them more deeply into international politics. The climate SDG isn’t an effort to reform or even really change the climate agenda – it’s just the UN trying to bolster the UNFCCC and create an interlocking set of commitments on the part of the world’s nations to address climate change, providing a strong foundation for agreement in Paris.
A new framework for climate finance
For another example of how the UN is using different agendas to reinforce prospects for its climate goals, turn to the question of who pays for development.
The UN’s Financing For Development programme which convenes in Addis Ababa in July is a long-running programme to get more money for development and make sure it’s spent in a joined-up way. Ahead of the SDG meeting in New York and the UNFCCC meeting in Paris, the Addis meeting aims to get agreement on how the world will pay for whatever is decided at both.
With the SDGs encompassing climate change, that includes agreeing how climate development programmes should be paid for – a discussion about what’s called “climate finance”. Key to this is the UN’s Green Climate Fund, a body that will channel money to poorer countries to help them adapt to and mitigate climate change. It’s a central plank of the international climate finance plan, and rich countries have agreed to pledge $100 billion per year to the fund from 2020.
This agreement is underlined in the climate SDG, but it’s not yet clear how that money will be raised, or how much of it will be additional to other aid spending. The UN hopes the Addis conference will establish that such money should be entirely additional to a separate pledge by rich countries to provide 0.7 per cent of their GDP as development aid. That would mean that rich countries couldn’t substitute climate finance for aid money.
Addis also aims to come up with new, innovative sources of cash. A UN working paper warns that “Developing countries will in fact need much more than $100 billion per year in climate financing”. This money will have to come from new sources like a carbon tax, financial transaction taxes, levies on international maritime transport and aviation, and more involvement from business, it says.
This already sounds like an ambitious programme. It is – but Addis will also aim to establish that all development spending “should be compatible with the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations (mitigation) and resilience to climate change (adaptation)”. If that gets signed off, it will create yet another way in which countries have agreed to deal with climate.
Success or failure at Addis and New York paves the way to Paris
If the UN does a good job of weaving climate change into its development and financing work, it will boost prospects for a global climate deal. World leaders will meet in Paris knowing that climate is a global development priority and that some of the financial foundations are in a place to pay for dealing with it.
That’s the best case scenario. But climate diplomats are also aware that success in Paris will have to be built on a series of successful ‘moments’ on the way which build trust and ambition.
If it proves difficult to agree on the SDGs, or to get countries to sign up to pay for them, it could damage prospects for a global climate deal. Alex Evans of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, a seasoned observer of both the UN climate and development processes, has warned that an ambiguous agreement in Addis could lead to resentment, undermine the prospects for the SDGs, and contribute to a lack of political goodwill when it comes to agreeing a climate deal.
That’s probably why UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon talks about the meetings in Addis, New York and Paris in the same breath, and also why the Pope will deliver a high-profile statement on climate change later this year, in which he is expected to explicitly link climate and development outcomes.
Either way, Addis should provide an early indication as to how the world is feeling about multilateral political agreements to solve big problems. Even if the details seem a bit arcane, climate diplomats will be watching what happens over the summer closely.