Long years of international endeavour to address climate change and sustainable development reached vital milestones within a few weeks of each other in 2015. Towards the end of that year world leaders adopted both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Separation of these negotiating paths became inevitable after the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The “Earth Summit” approved the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in a format distinct from Agenda 21 – which addressed sustainable development.
The flaw in this twin track approach is widely acknowledged. Failure to divert the current course of global warming would undermine almost every aspect of sustainable development. At the same time, failure to eradicate poverty and hunger would blunt a crucial weapon in the fight against climate change – the participation of every household.
The Overseas Development Institute in the UK estimates that climate change could increase the global number of people experiencing chronic hunger by 200 million in the next 20 years. The SDGs seek to end global hunger by 2030. Rising sea level along the coast of West Africa could reverse recent human development progress in that region – where the majority of economic activity is located in the coastal belt.
The treatment of climate change in the formulation of the SDGs therefore presented a challenge. The inclusion of a dedicated climate goal might conflict with agreements reached under the UNFCCC; yet it seemed inconceivable to omit climate change from such a far-reaching statement of global ambition.
In the event, Goal 13 of the approved SDGs resolves to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” But the targets associated with the Goal are limited to bland statements supportive of UNFCCC decisions.
Whilst the 2015 conclusion of agreements on both climate change and the SDGs has been a credit to all concerned, the detailed outcome has not resolved a pivotal tension between them. How can the imperative of driving down global greenhouse gas emissions be achieved without constraining the essential economic modernisation of the world’s poorest countries?
The Paris Agreement was secured partly because it abandoned the concept of equitable division of the “carbon budget” – the amount of carbon that can be consumed without pushing the increase in global temperature beyond the 2 degree target. Yet if poorer countries are to achieve the SDGs, they need the principle of equity to apply in ensuring that a sufficient share of this budget is available for their economic growth.
These countries argue that the emissions divide is too extreme for them to accept any significant restraint on their development. According to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, in 2016 the average US citizen was responsible for emissions of 15.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The comparable figure in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa was significantly less than 1.0 tonne. In China per capita emissions were 7.4 tonnes and India 1.9 tonnes.
These quantitative arguments are reinforced by the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development of “every human person.” It includes the direction that “States have the duty to co-operate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development.”
The response of the richer countries to this dilemma is to advocate a radical development model. This encourages developing countries to leapfrog traditional fossil-fuel industrialization into a modern era of low carbon green economics, often described as “climate-smart development.” As well as the adoption of renewable energy technologies, this would include the overhaul of backward farming practices through basic improvements in soil, water and livestock management.
This philosophy has proved problematic, not least because the economic policies of many of the richer countries may not yet justify the description of “climate-smart”. Many of these countries, including China and India, continue to power their economies by significant coal-fired generation.
Some of the international initiatives aimed at supporting developing countries, such as the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, are accused of exporting the western model of environmentally damaging industrial farming, controlled by a small number of very large corporations. The definition of “climate-smart” lacks consensus.
Nevertheless, research by the World Resources Institute shows a high degree of correlation between the climate action plans of the poorest countries and steps required to achieve their SDGs. If governance at national and local levels can succeed in coordinating the wide range of tasks, then it may be possible to achieve development that is both climate smart and equitable.
more Climate Justice briefings (updated March 2018)
Paris Climate Agreement
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