Climate change and global sustainable development goals

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Joy Hyvarinen , FIELD, Executive Director

This piece was originally published on the FIELD blog

New global sustainable development goals (also known as the “SDGs”) are expected to be the centrepiece of the UN post-2015 development agenda.

UN-climate-changepost-20156The Co-Chairs of the UN talks about the new sustainable development goals have identified potential focus areas that the goals could cover. Climate change is one of these areas.

Under the climate change heading, the Co-Chairs mention areas to be considered, including “reaffirming and reinforcing international commitments, such as limiting the increase in global average temperature through equitable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions …”.

The relationship between the future sustainable development goals and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)  has tensions, with politically challenging UNFCCC negotiations on a new climate agreement under way. The sustainable development goals are not meant to be legally binding like the UNFCCC, but they are likely to influence policy in countries all over the world.

Constructing a sustainable development goal on climate change and/or making climate change part of other sustainable development goals is also challenging technically.

Slowing climate change to a safer level

Thinking about the UNFCCC’s objective, spelled out in Article 2 of the UNFCCC, could help in the design of the new sustainable development goals.

In essence, the UNFCCC’s objective is to slow climate change to a level that is not dangerous.

The UNFCCC’s objective is automatically also the objective of “any related legal instruments”, such as the Kyoto Protocol and most likely the new climate change agreement that is under negotiation.

The UNFCCC negotiations have not defined what constitutes “dangerous” climate change. It could raise challenging questions such as “dangerous for whom?”. Some of these questions may come up in the 2013-2015 review, which includes considering if the 2 °C temperature limit is adequate.

UNEP’s Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS) recently confirmed that the “emissions gap” and the “adaptation gap” are increasing.  One could argue that we have passed the danger point already.

The sustainable development goals and the UN post-2015 agenda need to support the UNFCCC’s objective. They also need to take into account the likely consequences of advancing climate change on poor and vulnerable countries and communities.

A second line of defence for those most at risk

Climate change is a very large development challenge.

The UN Development Programme points out that climate change hits the world’s 2.6 billion poorest people the hardest. World Bank President Jim Jong Kim has said that if we don’t confront climate change, we won’t end poverty.

Countries that have contributed very little to climate change and people who are already facing the greatest development challenges will suffer the worst consequences of climate change. FIELD has argued that climate change is altering the world in a way that raises fundamental questions about global justice.

International decision makers need to be realistic and accept that it is increasingly likely that the UNFCCC negotiations will not succeed in limiting climate change to a safe level anytime soon.

The sustainable development goals and the UN post-2015 agenda need to include a second line of defence against climate change to protect the most vulnerable countries and communities.

It doesn’t need to involve trying to define what constitutes “dangerous” climate change or re-playing the UNFCCC negotiations in another set of UN talks. It should involve being pragmatic and planning how to help vulnerable countries and communities that will face even greater burdens because of climate change. Doing so would demonstrate international responsibility.

The Millennium Declaration and the bigger picture

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were drawn from the Millennium Declaration, but they only reflect some parts of the declaration.

For example, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr has highlighted that new development goals should expand beyond the Millennium Development Goals’ focus on poverty to reflect values and principles expressed in the Millennium Declaration and to acknowledge how development and poverty eradication are intertwined with: peace and security; environment; human rights; and democracy and good governance.

The new sustainable development goals should be rooted in the Millennium Declaration as a whole. Among other things, it would help to tackle the impacts of climate change. Climate change has consequences not only for poverty eradication and the environment, but for example also for human rightsand peace and security.

It may mean thinking across traditional boundaries between various policy sectors, but that’s what sustainable development requires.

And of course, the rule of law should underpin it all.


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