The Sustainable Development Goals zero draft — where does climate change fit (and will it stay the course)?

With the release of the zero draft of the Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs for short) climate change is now an official component, but what does that actually mean and where to from here?

In 2012 a record number of world leaders got together for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development — popularly known as Rio+20 as it was held in Rio on the 20th anniversary of the original UN Conference on Environment and Development (held in 1992, also in Rio). Rio+20 was seen as a key moment of reinvigorating for the concept of sustainable development, which in recent years has come to mean everything and nothing at the same time — companies (like Rio TintoCoca Cola and BP) throw the term around while doing little about adopting business practices that are actually sustainable with regards to cycles of production and consumption; while government representatives make stirring speeches (like this and this and this and this) about how central a concept it is (also while not really doing anything about achieving it).

One of the main outcomes of Rio+20 was the agreement to launch a process to develop a set of sustainable development goals. The Rio+20 outcomes document didn’t provide much guidance on the ends of this process, but did establish an Open Working Group (OWG) to provide the means. The OWG is made up of representatives from each UN region and includes input from civil society, NGOs and other interested parties through a formal process. The OWG is tasked with preparing a proposal for the SDGs to be discussed at the UN General Assembly this September.

On Monday, after 11 meetings, the OWG released a zero draft of its proposed SDG goals and targets. It’s a long list — 17 goals with 212 targets beneath them. That marks a significant jump from the SDG’s predecessor (and current global development framework) the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs for short) with a mere 8 goals and 21 targets, but a healthy 60 indicators. It also shows just how far the process has to go before it approximates something 193 UN member states will be comfortable signing up to in September 2015.

The current draft includes all the usual development suspects — end poverty (read ‘ensure everyone has more then US$1.25 a day to live on’),  end hunger, ensure health, universal education, gender equality, etc. But the goals are, in general, more ambitious than the MDGs as you can see from the table below.


As you can see from the table, the SDGs include new areas not addressed in through the MDGs — including challenging areas like sustainable production and consumption and sustainable industrialisation, which I find it difficult to imagine many nation states in the global north being happy to sign up to. The inequality goal is also likely to provide controversial.

Goals on energy and climate change are long overdue (both were ignored under the MDGs), and it is climate change which I’m most interested in looking at in the rest of this post.

The relationship between the environment and international development has a fractious history. The nascent ideal of sustainable development being an all encompassing meta-narrative for environment and development was dealt a blow at the original Rio summit, 22 years ago, when separate standalone processes were established to negotiate specifically around climate change, biodiversity and decertification — with none of these conventions closely or effectively interacting with each other or broader social and economic development processes over the last two decades. Far from the Rio vision of integrated environment and development as articulated in the outcomes document:

In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it

The two processes were segmented and separated to, largely, go their separate ways until, 20 years later, in the same place, they were thrust back together in the form of an acknowledgement of:

the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels, integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions.

This shift brought into sharp focus the fact that environmental concerns have been dealt with largely in isolation from broader development processes — to the major detriment of the environment. Despite this, the concept of ‘environment’ did make an appearance in the MDGs, with Goal 7 (achieve environmental sustainability) including targets on biodiversity loss, water and sanitation, and informal settlements, as well as integrating the “principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes”, which, in around half of regions, are off track and unlikely to be met by 2015.

In recent years, the lack of any reference to, or action on, climate change through the MDGs has been a significant handicap to the establishment of effective integrated “climate-smart” development policies and programs. Despite a number of stronger and stronger worded reports on the implications of climate change for development, and an increasing rhetoric on the need to ensure that development gains are ‘protected’ from climate change impacts, little in the way of integrated action has happened at local, national or international levels.

Building from this low base, the inclusion of climate change in the SDGs at all is significant progress. But whether it will remain the in the final list by next September remains to be seen. The inclusion of climate change in the SDGs has been contentious, with some nations (typified by Saudi Arabia) arguing that climate change should be left to the UNFCCC (where little progress is being made, and the process seems to still be licking the wounds inflicted at the debacle of a meeting in 2009 which resulted in most world leaders backing away from the issue). Climate change, must, however, be included in the SDGs for precisely this reason. With the UNFCCC process largely hobbled by vested interests and the free-rider problem which are unlikely to be satisfactorily resolved by the end of 2015 deadline to agree a global climate deal, the world is likely to get a lot warmer and more dangerous in coming decades. A climate changed world is a world where sustainable development is not only unlikely to be achievable, it is also a world in which hard won development gains are not likely to be sustainable.

If solving the ‘climate problem’ is left to the UNFCCC, where it is largely discussed in isolation from the contexts in which any outcomes need to be implemented, and where the negotiations are overtly political, the outcome is likely to prove fatal to the SGDs. The Economist largely got it right, in 2009 (before the Copenhagen collapse), saying:

It is all about politics. Climate change is the hardest political problem the world has ever had to deal with. It is a prisoner’s dilemma, a free-rider problem and the tragedy of the commons all rolled into one. At issue is the difficulty of allocating the cost of collective action and trusting other parties to bear their share of the burden. At a city, state and national level, institutions that can resolve such problems have been built up over the centuries. But climate change has been a worldwide worry for only a couple of decades. Mankind has no framework for it. The UN is a useful talking shop, but it does not get much done.

Obviously, the SDG process lives within the UN, but it is dealing with far less contentious problems in the main, but problems that will be rendered more complex and hard to solve as climate change impacts intensify.

The climate change goal in the zero draft of the SDGs largely reiterates the current agree positions in the UNFCCC, the placeholder targets are:

  • hold the increase in global average temperature below a x°C rise in accordance with international agreements
  • build resilience and adaptive capacity to climate induced hazards in all vulnerable countries
  • by 20xx integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies into development plans and poverty reduction strategies
  • by 20xx introduce instruments and incentives for investments in low-carbon solutions in all relevant sectors
  • improve education, awareness raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change impact reduction and early warning

The ‘x’s are to be filled in after the UNFCCC conference in Paris at the end of 2015 (when the global climate framework is supposed to be finalised). Interestingly, the UNFCCC meeting which is meant to fill in these blanks won’t happen until a couple of months <i>after</i> the UN General Assembly finalises and signs off on the SDGs…

This may not be an issue given the likelihood that the climate goal will be knocked out between now and the end of 2015. In which case, the focus should shift to effectively embedding climate change into the remaining goals — including with climate-specific targets under each goal.

One option, which would serve the dual purpose of sidestepping the toxic politics of mitigation and helping ensure the SDGs are in fact sustainable, is to effectively remove adaptation from the UNFCCC and housing it in the UN’s new High-level Political Forum on sustainable development which is charged with overseeing the development and implementation of the SDGs.


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