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Guest Blog: Sustainable Development Is Critical for Climate Action

Khalil Shahyd’s work focuses on the Energy Efficiency for All Project, which aims to increase utility-funded energy efficiency programs in the affordable multifamily housing sector. He coordinates with NRDC’s affordable housing partners to advocate for efficiency investments in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. As part of the LEED Neighborhood Development initiative, Shahyd also promotes the expansion of “green” communities in New Orleans.

Climate activists are often frustrated by the slow pace of national and global actions on climate change. Recognizing the urgent need for action doesn’t always give rise to the political will necessary to follow throughparticularly with an issue as complex as transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels.

A recent paper in Science Magazine titled "A roadmap for rapid de-carbonization" (hereafter “the roadmap”) spells that part out—as does a perhaps more accessible Vox article reviewing it, and both explain in clear detail the scale of the daunting task ahead of us. However, the truth is that too often, discussion of actions required to address climate change neglect the broader dimensions of sustainable development that will be required to meet the U.N.’s ambitious and necessary targets on carbon emissions.

Patricia Espinosa, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently reminded that “the ultimate objectives of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be achieved only if they are fully recognized as one encompassing agenda.”

A cynical approach to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals would be to simply assume they are a random accumulation of aspirations that most rational people would support. They favor, for example, logical steps like ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests but are less clear on how they all interact and complement one another.
The roadmap for success breaks the actions necessary to reduce carbon emissions and avoid the 2 degrees Celsius threshold into three 10-year time intervals each representing stages of development in achieving a post-carbon reality. The SDGs can complement  these scenarios by ensuring that above all else, action on climate change “leaves no one behind.”

To accomplish that complex and challenging higher purpose, the 17 SDG goals were carefully considered and negotiated and contain numerous linkages to each other and to climate action more broadly.

2017-2020: Establishing the Policy Framework

The authors of the de-carbonization roadmap describe a period from 2017-2020 to set the policies to ensure that the reductions in carbon emissions begin by the end of the period. In addition, they suggest that “all cities and major corporations in the industrialized world should have de-carbonization strategies in place.”  

Getting the right policies in place across nations and hundreds of cities, of diverse sizes, histories and economic character will require an extraordinary amount of “political will” to achieve it and the engagement of people and actors across many nations, cities and sectors. More importantly, how and who decides this policy mix will determine the patterns of development, the pace, space and structure of our decarbonized future. It is a critical step in the work that should be inclusive of multiple voices and perspectives.

Goal 17 of the SDGs—on strengthening partnerships—includes key elements of a strategy to build the political will and capacity of cities and nations to respond to the challenging scenario set forth in the de-carbonization roadmap. Achieving these ambitious targets will require a revitalized and enhanced global partnership bringing together governments, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations system and other actors to mobilize all available resources. This means the task will only be successful with strong relationships—no minor point.
 2020-2030: Time to Show and Prove

The period between 2020-2030 is the core implementation phase of the de-carbonization strategy (and simultaneously the final 10-year stretch of the 2030 Agenda on the SDGs). Within this period, the roadmap suggest that coal will be about to exit the global energy scene, and carbon pricing should be expanded to cover all greenhouse gas emissions with a minimum price of $50 per metric ton. The authors of note that improving energy efficiency alone could reduce emissions “40 to 50% by around 2030.” Finally a massive new investment in transportation technology, light rail and electrification, along with greater efficiencies in industrial production will round out to core advancements necessary to reduce emissions.

First, eliminating coal from the global energy supply implies a massive shift in energy assets and most importantly labor. SDG Goal 8 helps ensure that the transition from coal does not abandon workers and the communities that rely on revenue from those industries for economic growth.
Second improving energy efficiency is a worthy goal. However, unless attention is paid to the distribution of efficiency services, many low-income families, communities and the institutions that serve them will remain isolated and unserved. The SDGs provide a useful frame to target resources to this fact with Goal 7, ensuring “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” that includes the target to increase investment in energy efficiency as a percentage of GDP.

Further, the authors identified the need for greater efficiency in industrial production, and the SDGs, too, make a priority of this issue with Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production patterns. Attaining and sustaining human quality of life requires certain levels of economic growth and development. Ensuring that we meet the physical needs of people without endangering the planet is at the root of this discussion and often most difficult challenge in the transition.

2030-2040: On the Path to Sustainability

During this 10-year period, the policies, institutions and processes driving our transition to a more sustainable society are becoming more mature, including carbon-neutral or carbon-negative  building construction.

Internal combustion engines for short distance hauling and personal transit along with fossil driven aircraft will be almost non-existent and oil will be in rapid decline as a the primary fuel in the global energy mix.

This phase is critical for ensuring that the policies established in the initial period and the implementation strategies deployed in the first 10-year increment distribute the benefits and burdens of this transition equitably.

The SDGs offer many goals that can help to focus our efforts in a way to meet multiple objectives. More importantly, we must address the implication of these changes and how they impact the ability of people to choose how and where to live. SDG Goals 1–poverty5–gender equity; and 10–reducing inequality respectively provide important frameworks to measuring policy outcomes. For example, how does carbon-neutral or carbon-negative building construction impact the cost of housing for families, particularly in many cities were housing affordability is already at crisis points?

Similarly, shifting from gas-fueled cars to electric vehicles and alternative transit options will have clear impacts on the spatial organization and social structure of cities, including issues of mobility and access. SDG Goal 11, on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, is a key strategic framework for addressing these specific challenges, as is  Goal 9 on inclusive industrialization and a more resilient infrastructure.

Also, some goals of the 2030 sustainability agenda will benefit from improved environmental quality and reduced carbon emissions. However these same goals can provide important incentives and motivations for continuing progress toward the climate agenda.

One such goal is SDG Goal 3 on health and wellbeing. The relationship between climate change and health outcomes is now well understood. Health is often framed as a “co-benefit” to climate action where carbon emissions are the primary target or goal. However in as many cases, climate action and financing can benefit from the priorities of messaging health and wellbeing outcomes as the core priority. Rather than just a co-benefit, investments in health that take climate change impacts into consideration can create complementary relationships between targets on improving health and wellbeing as provided by the SDGs and building public support for climate action.
Additional issues will also have to be fleshed out—such as creating a more sustainable food production system, SDG Goal 2 (Zero Hunger). More than 10 percent of carbon emissions is attributable to the global food industry and a more sustainable food system also goes back  to supporting improved health and wellbeing.

Improving the capacity of degraded land and forest cover, SDG Goal 15 (Life on Land); and oceans, seas and larger water bodies, SDG Goal 14 (Life Below Water), to improve ability of these critical ecosystems to act as natural carbon sinks will also prove key to meeting climate targets, according to the roadmap. However, the authors warn that we must be careful in addressing these issues by ensuring to “resolve deployment issues relating to food security, biodiversity preservation, indigenous rights, and societal acceptance.”

2040-2050: Monitor, Evaluate, and Renew

In this final stage of the roadmap, nations are well on their way toward meeting climate goals and are evaluating those processes, with any needed reassessments developed and incorporated immediately.
This is also where the work comes full circle. Just as we began this discussion with SDG Goal 17; we come back to the development of partnerships and inclusive processes to engage the public and civil society in assessments of outcomes, addressing challenges and charting new courses.  However, we must not take for granted that various sectors of the public and civil society will have the capacity and interest to participate in these necessary conversations. To ensure that the trust in public institutions exists and that engagement is truly inclusive, SDG Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions is vital to overcoming the conflict and the instability with which many communities now struggle.

Finally, a society that lacks a strong education system will struggle to galvanize the human resources necessary to make difficult decisions and execute them successfully. SDG Goal 4 (Quality Education) serves as a reminder of the central role of education in creating inclusive societies capable of innovation and accountability to the public.

All Together Now

Action on climate change and sustainable development must be considered in tandem.
Climate Change and increased risk of extreme weather resulting in natural disasters have the potential to undermine progress on poverty alleviation, weaken the stability of communities and increase inequality. Similarly, unsustainable development can slow, or threaten progress on climate change, by potentially increasing consumption of fossil fuels as consumers become more wealthy, homes become larger and people rely more on private cars than public transit.
In a previous post I warned against a tendency by many, particularly in the environmental community, to focus on the Paris Climate Agreement while neglecting implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

As the roadmap shows, a global climate solution goes well beyond a mathematical formula for the least costly method of reducing carbon emissions. It requires a global development agenda—one in which all nations are equal participants and engaged.

The SDGs are exactly that, a global development agenda negotiated by the people and nations of the world. The SDGs are comprised of 17 goals further broken out into 169 individual targets that can be further refined and localized to ensure meaningful representation on the ground.
No roadmap can be absolutely precise in its description of such a complex issue at the scale necessary to address climate change. This makes it all the more important that as many people as possible are allowed to engage in thinking through the appropriate strategies.


Sustainable development is not a fortunate byproduct of climate action; it is its organizing principle. As we continue to advance and confront the coming executive actions looming over continued climate action, the integration of the Sustainable Development Goals and actions to address Climate Change provide a blueprint for how we move forward.

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