Short-sighted climate policy jeopardizes other UN sustainable development goals
Energy efficiency improvements can reap synergies, says new study
The longer the world delays implementing ambitious climate policy, and the fewer technologies it is willing to use, the more it lowers the prospects of reaching the other UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). This was the finding of a recent study led by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin. “The UN sustainable development goals form a complex structure. Anyone seeking to interfere in any which way should be aware of the complicated mechanism,” says Christoph von Stechow from the MCC. Together with a team of international scientists, von Stechow published an article entitled “2°C and SDGs: United they stand, divided they fall?” in the prestigious journal Environmental Research Letters.
The seventeen SDGs were adopted in 2015 by all 193 countries of the United Nations and are intended to be reached by 2030. Based on the latest IPCC report, the researchers have examined, for the first time, the reciprocity between climate change mitigation and ten other SDGs and sustainable energy objectives, such as access to affordable and clean energy, less ocean acidification and reduced air pollution. Based on existing scenarios that keep global mean temperature rise below 2°C, the scientists calculated the impacts on various sustainability risks across different models.
“For example, if, in pursuit of food security, the world’s climate change mitigation strategy was to rely less on bioenergy, some goals, such as air quality, would also be easier to accomplish. By contrast, other goals, such as affordable energy, would become more difficult to reach,” says MCC researcher von Stechow. “Those who insist on less bioenergy would have to decarbonize the economy more quickly by stopping coal power earlier and accelerating the expansion of renewables.”
Thus, the different pathways to reaching the 2°C goal endanger achieving the other sustainability goals to varying degrees. For example, delays in climate policy and technological constraints have an exacerbating effect on each other. However, a promising angle from which to advance mitigation is a significant rise in global energy efficiency to reap synergies and keep trade-offs manageable. At present, energy efficiency is growing at about 1.3 percent per year. And with an increase to just below two percent, countries across the world would decrease their dependency on problematic technologies such as underground carbon storage and nuclear power by roughly one third in order to limit global warming to 2°C. Even short-term economic impacts would be significantly less severe and food security would be less threatened.
The new study aims at advancing a public debate in order to assess the risks of various mitigation pathways rather than categorically excluding certain options. “Mitigation strategies likewise have risks; yet these are not comparable to those of unabated climate change,” says Keywan Riahi, study co-author and Director of the Energy Program at the International Institute of Applied System Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenberg, Austria. “Whether mitigation pathways will be viable and acceptable at the local scale will be largely determined by their impact on other sustainability goals.”
As is well known, time is a crucial factor in climate change. “The clock is ticking, and the longer the world delays implementing an ambitious climate policy, the more difficult it will be to reach many other sustainable development goals,” says Jan Minx, another co-author. Minx is leader of the MCC Working Group Applied Sustainability Science and Professor for Science-Policy and Sustainable Development at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Conversely, a good climate policy could become the key to overcoming global problems caused by air pollution or the lack of food and energy security, namely through clear signals to investors and greater efforts toward energy efficiency. “This means that we must follow up on the Paris Agreement with prompt but well-thought out action”, says Minx.
Link to the cited study (free download):
von Stechow, C.; Minx, J. C.; Riahi, K.; Jewell, J.; McCollum, D. L.; Callaghan, M. W.; Bertram, C.; Luderer, G.; Baiocchi, G. (2016): 2 °C and SDGs: united they stand, divided they fall? Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 3
Environmental Research Letters covers all of environmental science, providing a coherent and integrated approach including research articles, perspectives and editorials.
Video abstract (engl., 04:01 min.): 2 °C and SDGs: united they stand, divided they fall?
Video abstract transcript
With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and a new international climate treaty in Paris, 2015 might become a historic year for setting human development on a more sustainable pathway. While sustainable development is an explicit part of the Paris Agreement, taking urgent climate action features as one of the SDGs. But how do these two processes relate to each other? In our letter, we look at other SDGs through a climate lens. We argue that the way we address the climate problem strongly affects the prospects of meeting numerous other sustainable energy objectives.
Our analysis is based on existing scenarios with different short-term climate policy assumptions. They also differ in their reliance on key mitigation technologies but all stay below 2°C. We now want to know how delaying ambitious climate policy until 2030 affects the prospects of achieving other SDGs. And what are the effects of constraining the availability of key mitigation technologies, such as a limited renewable electricity potential, limited global bioenergy potential, no new nuclear capacity or unavailability of carbon dioxide capture and storage.
We summarize the results by comparing such constrained 2°C pathways to those with immediate mitigation and full availability of mitigation technologies – shown here in grey. We differentiate between those indicators that usually show synergies with growing climate policy ambition on the left side and those that show trade-offs with climate action on the right side. Points closer to the origin imply more synergies and fewer trade-offs. The opposite is true for points outside the grey line.
If technologies are constrained, we need to act even faster on climate change to stay below 2°C – which results in more synergies but also more trade-offs. Limiting technologies that play a bigger role in reaching the long-term climate goal results in both higher additional co-benefits and higher additional risks for other goals. For example, if we rely less on bioenergy in pursuit of food security some goals, such as air quality, would also be easier to accomplish. In contrast, other goals such as affordable energy would become more difficult to reach. We would also have to decarbonize the economy more quickly by stopping coal power earlier and accelerating the expansion of renewables.
Insufficient short-term action – such as the emission reduction pledges submitted by countries so far – lead to higher risks of not meeting other SDGs. Constraining technologies and delaying climate action reinforce each other. Short-sighted climate policy hence reduces our flexibility in managing trade-offs across SDGs.
Saving energy, however, can maintain a certain degree of flexibility in managing these trade-offs. A 50% increase in energy efficiency improvements would decrease our dependence on problematic technologies such as CCS and nuclear power roughly by a third. Even short-term economic impacts would be significantly less severe and food security would be less threatened.
In conclusion, SD considerations are central for choosing socially acceptable 2°C pathways. The longer we wait with ambitious climate policy, and the fewer technologies we are willing to use, the more we lower our prospects of reaching other SDGs. We must follow up on the Paris Agreement with prompt but well-thought out action to preserve our chances of reaching all SDGs.
This letter has been published in Environmental Research Letters and is openly accessible.