Climate change and SDGs – an arranged marriage

Most people agree that efforts on sustainable development and climate change need to be tackled together. You can’t succeed on one without addressing the other. Whether it concerns energy, food security, water, cities or consumption patterns, almost all the sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted at the UN last week are linked to the ability to tackle global warming. So on the surface, the issues of climate change and sustainable development would appear to be ‘friends’. But are they real friends or rather ‘frenemies’?

A ‘frenemy’ is an enemy pretending to be a friend or a friend who is also a rival. This captures an uneasy truth that is implicitly acknowledged but rarely discussed in public. So here are 8 facts showing how these two get along in the corridors of the UN.

1. United by necessity

Arising from different traditions – human rights activism and humanitarian relief on one side, scientific research and environmental conservation on the other – the development and climate change movements came together out of necessity rather than choice. “For development professionals, it became clear that more frequent and severe humanitarian disasters were caused by extreme weather,” says Ben Phillips, Campaigns and Policy director at ActionAid. “Climate change campaigners embraced inequality as they realized that who puts less carbon in the atmosphere will suffer the most from it.”

2. Different time horizons

“Because of the emergency approach of humanitarian work, many anti-poverty campaigners tend to focus on immediate needs, more than on potential threats for the future,” Phillips says. Some speculate that this could explain why the development goals – both MDGs and SDGs – have been on a 15-year schedule, while climate treaties have a longer time span. Martin Kaiser, Head of International Negotiations at Greenpeace, stresses that the sustainable development goals lack long-term direction and, especially for energy, a goal to guide investors up to 2050.

3. It all started in Rio

When was the word “sustainable” added to “development”? Although work begun in the early ‘70s, the current definition dates to the Bruntland Commission in 1987. The idea of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations set the stage for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. This launched the Climate Change Convention (with the creation of the UNFCCC Secretariat) and Agenda 21, a short-lived precursor of the SDGs. Twenty years later the Rio+20 conference decided that sustainable development goals were to follow the Millennium Development Goals of 2000. In between, there was the failure of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

4. Developing countries brought them together

While development has long been associated with aid from rich to poor countries, its connection to environmental sustainability was brought to the table by developing nations. “Long before we began to discuss climate change, local communities in India and globally had begun to recognize the impact of environmental damage, especially of deforestation, on their lives and livelihoods” says Bina Agarwal, Professor of Development Economics and Environment at the University of Manchester. The problem was also about locating responsibilities for environmental change and global warming. “Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, developing countries, insisted that the West take historic responsibility for the consequences of global environmental problems and unsustainable consumption patterns,” she adds. This fed into the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which has been an enduring flash point in the climate talks.

5. Many cooks competing at the UN?

Climate change sits with the UNFCCC secretariat but other agencies such as UNEP and WMO have a mandate to contribute to the IPCC and other climate-related programmes at the UN. The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) is responsible for funding on development. UNDESA, the Secretariat for the Economic and Social Commission, is in charge of implementing the SDGs. And numerous other agencies will provide inputs into the global goals (UNEP, UNESCO, FAO and more). Some hope that the global goals will provide an incentive for these agencies – which do not have a stellar track record on collaboration – to work better together. Others are less optimistic. “Overlaps and silos are not suitable for universal goals in a globalized context. We have to build agencies that work together horizontally,” says Tom Burke, Chairman of environmental think tank E3G. He acknowledges, however, that the UN only mirrors the lack of integration within governments. Ian Scoones, Director of STEPS, a policy research centre at the University of Sussex, wrote that the SDGs have to move away from development committees and run across government departments. Just like global warming cannot be confined to environment committees.

6. Binding targets

Among the SDGs, the responsibility for the climate goal is handed over to the UNFCCC. This is the only body subject to binding targets. The SDGs themselves are not binding for anyone – it is up to the individual governments to decide how much, if anything, they want to implement.

7. Competition for money

Different agencies and silo approaches also mean separate funding streams with limited incentives to work together. This has been a major area of contention. The general understanding is that climate finance should come on top of development assistance (the principle of additionality). But no one knows where the money for all the goals will come from.

8. A data divide

Climate policies are supported by data collected over decades, if not centuries, and compiled in the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In contrast, a study by the Overseas Development Institute revealed last year that there is a dramatic lack of information in relation to the sustainable development goals. In fact, a quarter more people may suffer from poverty than the current estimates. The “data revolution”, an initiative to track the global goals, has been designed to cover the gap but it will take time.

A mix of celebration and skepticism has welcomed the SDGs. Their ambition is vast and dispersed and the next steps will be a test of their ability to deliver. Connections with climate change have been much discussed at the institutional level but whether it will happen will be determined at the Paris climate conference in December. This will be a key moment to turn ‘frenemies’ into ‘friends’ and reveal for both the chances of success.

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