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FEATURE: What can the SDGs do for climate change? And vice versa…


How should climate change be addressed in the post-2015 development framework? Dessima Williams, Member of the Leaders Council, Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice (MRFCJ) and former Ambassador of Grenada to the United Nations reports on recent discussions among political leaders on this hot topic.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are due to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. There is widespread agreement that the impacts of climate change will hinder global efforts to eradicate poverty. Nevertheless, how climate change will be integrated into the post-2015 development framework and the SDGs is still a topic of hot debate within the UN system. A recent meeting of government and UN officials in New York put this topic on the table.

Hosted by the French government, the workshop was organised by a group of environment and development NGOs, including CAFOD and WWF UK. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Head of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice (MRFCJ) and Jeffrey Sachs, veteran of the MDG process and leader of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN) opened the meeting. They set the stage for discussion among participants, which included around 20 government delegations. I then chaired a discussion of how climate change should be integrated in the SDGs at a technical and a process level, followed by another session chaired by Monalisa Chatterjee of the Carnegie Institute. This discussion brought two predominant views on the matter to the surface.

One, more popular view among governments focuses on mainstreaming climate change across the SDGs with targets in relevant goals on energy, food, water, and so on. For example, having a target on supporting poor people’s adaptive capacity and resilience embedded in a goal on poverty eradication or a target on cutting down indoor air pollution under a goal on health. Views do differ on exactly how mainstreaming should be done. Participants argued for varying degrees of visibility for climate change despite it being an existential threat and as a challenge to development. The UK government, for example, is keen that climate change is ‘very visible’ within the SDGs.

The more controversial view shared by a few governments but many other stakeholders is that the mainstreaming of climate change within the goals should be combined with a standalone goal on climate change. This approach would place climate change at the highest level of visibility, and demonstrate the importance of climate change to achieving poverty eradication and sustainable development, the declared aims of the SDGs. The supporters of this approach argue that if the SDGs should aim to provide an inspirational and aspirational ‘to do list’ for the next 15 years climate change cannot be missed off this list. The question is, without an explicit climate change goal, will the SDGs be credible and relevant? Many of the small Island States, such as the Solomon Islands and some in the Caribbean Community, as well as other vulnerable developing countries, like Bangladesh and Guatemala, are supportive of a standalone goal, while some of the big political players, including India, China and Brazil, are strictly against such an approach.

At the moment it is clear that UNFCCC and post-2015 processes are running on separate, but parallel tracks. However, the fact that both processes are set to conclude during the second half of 2015 means that there are opportunities to link the two. It goes without saying that great efforts are needed to deliver an ambitious and legally binding UNFCCC outcome at COP21 in Paris. Yet, we should not underestimate what a voluntary framework , such as the SDGs, can achieve in terms of supporting implementation and focussing public attention as well as funding streams on climate change related activities.

One argument against the inclusion of a standalone climate change goal is that it could prejudge the outcomes of the Paris COP. But this should not be seen as a reason to drop it altogether. The SDGs (just as their predecessor the MDGs) will aim to build on other ongoing UN processes and agreements and so it should be possible to find a way to at least build complementarities between the two processes.

One suggestion put forward by the Hungarian and Kenyan ambassadors who co-chair the UN Open Working Group on SDGs was to put a placeholder in the SDG framework that will be populated by targets based on the Paris outcome. However this was met with a lot of scepticism by other UN member states. This suggests that more flexibility will be needed to find an agreeable way forward.
Once the Open Working Group has reported in September 2014, the final round of negotiations will kick off at the UN General Assembly.

This agenda is too important to be swept under the carpet and I hope that many more stakeholders will get engaged and show that sustainable development that leaves nobody behind is a valid and achievable vision. Like my friend Mary Robinson said in her key note address at the workshop:

“Climate change is a threat to development – and it forces us to consider a completely different way of doing things – a complete transformation. Business as usual with a little added ‘greenness’ won’t be enough.”

The discussion papers presented at the workshop were ‘Exploring options to integrate climate change into the goals and targets for post-2015 development’ and ‘Doubling climate ambition: how the post-2015 and UNFCCC processes complement each other’.

Image: courtesy World Bank.

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