A report by a group of independent experts released on Wednesday, September 13, 2023, by the United Nations outlines steps governments should take to maximise the impact of policies and actions by tackling the climate and sustainable development crises at the same time, creating synergies.
The expert group, with 14 diverse members co-led by Luis Gomez-Echeverri, Emeritus Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Heide Hackmann, Director of Future Africa, University of Pretoria, was co-convened earlier this year by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the UN Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) to produce this report, which is said to be the first of its kind.
“Maximising synergies between climate action and the SDGs has never been more critical,” said Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs. “We must get the SDGs on track and keep the goal of 1.5 degrees alive,” he said, while also stressing that “an integrated approach that seeks to strengthen synergies between these two global agendas is critical to that end.”
“Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and stabilising our climate to build resilient societies are two sides of the same endeavour,” said Simon Stiell, UNFCCC Executive Secretary. “I am confident that the work of the Expert Group will spur additional efforts that can result in win-win outcomes for both climate action and the SDG agenda and transition us towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world.”
The report preface also cites UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ rallying cry that “climate action is the 21st century’s greatest opportunity to drive forward all the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Building the evidence base
Evidence indicates strong synergies between addressing climate change and achieving the SDGs, the report states, whereby advancements in one can lead to improvements in the other. Therefore, pursuing the 2030 Agenda and implementation of the Paris Agreement in concert can significantly advance both agendas. Co-benefits of climate actions often directly achieve the SDG goals, and evidence suggests that co-benefits outweigh trade-offs in most cases.
Among the examples cited, achieving universal electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 (SDG 7) would require an annual investment of $27 billion under existing climate policies, but would require an additional $6 billion without climate policies. Stringent air pollution control and GHG mitigation measures would help bring 40% of the global population exposed to unhealthy particulate matter levels below the WHO air quality guideline, with the largest improvements realised for India, China and the Middle East.
According to the report, the factors blocking more synergistic actions revolve around knowledge gaps, political and institutional arrangements, and economic disruptions. In particular, the main barriers include lack of funding to analyse and finance more integrated policy actions; institutional rigidity that puts climate and development policy in separate silos; the dominance of top-down policy making; a general lack of data and indicators, and a lack of understanding about the value of synergies and the capacity to identify and implement them.
The report calls for greater institutional coordination and policy coherence across sectors and departments at the national level, to better integrate SDG and climate policy development and action. It also recommends that the governance and policy frameworks for both the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda will need to be changed in order to align climate action with the SDGs.
The expert group suggests that country commitment and reporting mechanisms, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) undertaken under Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, should include synergistic targets or co-benefits. Currently, only 23 of the 173 NDCs explicitly refer to SDGs, even though they have a major impact on achieving the SDGs at regional and global levels, and none go into detail about how climate policy affects SDG outcomes.
Among positive examples referenced, in Kenya, the Climate Change Department conducted an SDG impact analysis of the proposed measures of the National Climate Change Action Plan for 2018-2022. This analysis helped capture SDG-climate synergies and identify opportunities for low-carbon development in the country. Mexico evaluated how existing NDCs would affect implementation of the 2030 Agenda nationally. All 169 SDG targets were examined and 64 were found to have potential co-benefits to climate mitigation and adaptation.
The report also recommends that policymakers have stronger links with researchers studying climate and development, who could assess possible synergies. Addressing the significant disconnect between scientific evidence and applied policy action can ensure the best scientifically verified policies are agreed and carried out.
Differences across countries
North and South. Synergies are highly dependent on national priorities and context, the report finds. In the Global South, GHG emission reduction goals are primarily focused on regulating land use, which also advances several SDGs. In the Global North, synergies often emerge from the region’s pathway to a clean energy transition. The interlinkages between SDG and climate action are more pronounced for low-income and lower-middle-income countries, the report states, as SDG progress and financing gaps are far more pressing for many of these countries than reducing the impacts of climate change.
The report also notes that, with some 56% of the global population living in cities, expected to rise to 70% by 2050, the drive for sustainable cities (SDG 11) presents a major challenge and opportunity to advance climate action at the city level, especially in the Global South. There are many examples of cities around the world where these synergies have brought significant benefits in sustainable transport, sustainable use of urban space, lower greenhouse gases, less air pollution and improved health.
The large investment gap in climate and development action, and insufficient finance to enhance the synergies needed, are rooted in the deep failure of the global financial architecture and finance fragmentation that makes policy coherence difficult, the report finds. Current efforts to address these failures at the international level should include measures that encourage multilateral development banks and international financial institutions to introduce instruments that enhance climate and development synergies.
The report is said to be a first edition that will be expanded with deeper analysis, more data and more developed recommendations in time for the major UN summits in 2024, particularly the Summit of the Future. The dialogue and engagement that has been building, including through the Fourth Global Conference on Climate and SDG Synergies in July 2023, will continue to be expanded through the upcoming UNFCCC Regional Climate Weeks and other avenues, and a fifth global conference is being planned in 2024.