It’s a historic week for the environment, with the Paris Climate agreement entering into effect after the United States, India and the European Union moved to formally join the accord. The inclusion of these large emitters brings the total number of signatories to 71, representing approximately 57 percent of global emissions.
The agreement, which calls on countries to combat climate change and limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, will take effect in 30 days—an incredibly quick adoption in the history of such agreements.
As we celebrate, and the world looks to implement the agreement, we must remember another critical global agreement that will need to come into play.
What are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted on Sept. 25, 2015, at the United Nations headquarters in New York by world leaders from all 193 U.N.-member countries. The goals are built on a 15-year framework and include 17 goals and 169 specific targets, ranging from the eradication of extreme poverty to the provision of clean and affordable energy. The SDGs extend from previous international targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but the SDGs apply to all nations.
Why a sustainable development agenda matters?
Sustainable development, defined by the UN after the Bundtland Comission report, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” More importantly, “development” can best be understood as a collective vision and the institutional processes that guide how desirable or progressive change in society is best achieved.
As the Paris Agreement comes into effect, meeting our carbon emissions target will imply drastic changes to our global society at the national and local levels. The SDGs provide a way of ensuring our processes for determining the best strategies for reducing carbon emissions are socially embedded in and paired to societal goals such as reducing poverty and inequality.
Social Embeddedness and Environmental Policy
The concept of social embeddedness was first articulated by economic sociologist Karl Polanyi in 1944. Polanyi argued that economies are better understood as embedded in “non-market” institutions such as familial and ethnic relations, religion and politics. These non-market institutions discipline market activity and keep it bound to the collective social vision of society.
The SDGs use this approach to create a universally applied framework for re-embedding climate policy with social goals, and can be a key to ensuring an equitable transition from a fossil-driven global society to a sustainable one. In other words, they reintegrate environmental policy with human social realities, opening the way for a different and more positive way of thinking about altering our economies to remove fossil fuels from our energy mix in a massive economic and industrial transition on a scale never before seen, particularly given the limited time we have to achieve it.
The impacts of this transition, obviously, are likely to be wide-reaching and uneven, but the global consensus—as demonstrated this week—has decided we must proceed nonetheless.
The importance of having shared targets
Much as the Paris Agreement was negotiated by nations before eventually being adopted, the SDGs are global in nature and represent a mutually decided consensus and a common language. The process of creating the SDGs took three years and included input from more than 10 million people, including close to 80,000 Americans.
By adopting universally applicable targets, we are creating greater accountability in our policymaking and response to the climate crisis. We are committing ourselves to meeting specific, measurable outcomes and not just making empty processes to “engage” or be “inclusive.” In the climate context, when we pair emissions targets with additional social targets it reminds us to consider the social outcomes inherent in our various policy responses. Without that we risk creating negative social externalities and unintended consequences.
Reengaging the “development” discipline as progressive politics
The assumption is typically that UN agreements and ideas have little bearing on what happens in the United States. But when we look at problems like the drinking water crisis in Flint and many cities across the nation, a national crisis of housing affordability, persistent poverty, and rising inequality, development isn’t just an issue of need in struggling nations, but a common challenge facing all nations.
When compared internationally, in fact, the U.S. consistently falls in the lower half of industrialized nations on social indicators, and that is reflected in the SDGs. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, led by Jeffery Sachs, developed an SDG Index and Dashboard to track progress on achieving each of the 17 goals. The U.S. ranks 25th globally, behind nations such as Hungary, Belarus and New Zealand. Further, a recent report by the group, Future of Spaceship Earth, found that the U.S. is not likely to meet 10 of the 17 SDG targets without more deliberate action, particularly the targets on Decent work and economic growth, inequality and climate action. The latter may be due to the fact that our combined policy responses to Climate Change to date fall short of our international commitments to reduce emissions.
Re-engaging a development agenda in the U.S. will require rethinking the purpose and practice of development at the local level. It must be about more than housing and property development. Community advocates working in environmental and economic justice realms will need to reconsider community development as a progressive political strategy. Most importantly, as we delve deeper into the conversation of global climate action, development is the platform through which a much wider and diverse segment of the population can participate. While the average person may not be able to analyze or articulate how much carbon by parts per million is safe in the atmosphere, he or she can talk about the social goals that should be prioritized as we attempt such a massive transition of our global economy.
Such reimagining sounds like a large task but it is already happening. New York City has already adapted its OneNYC plan to the Sustainable Development Goals in a document titled, “Global Vision/Urban Action” and foundations across the country have been meeting for over a year to discuss the role they can play in implementing the SDGs in the U.S.
David Roberts, writing for Vox, may have put it best:
When climate activists say, ‘We have the technology; all we need is the political will,’ they act like that’s good news. But think about the political will we need: to immediately cease fossil fuel exploration, start shutting down coal mines, and put in place a plan for managed decline of the fossil fuel industry; to double or triple the global budget for clean energy research, development, and deployment; to transfer billions of dollars from wealthy countries to poorer ones, to protect them from climate impacts they are most vulnerable to but least responsible for; and quite possibly, if it comes to it, to limit the consumptive choices of the globe’s wealthiest and most carbon-intensive citizens.
I think David lays out the sheer scale of the activity we must undertake.
A climate solution of that magnitude goes well beyond a mathematical formula for the least costly method of reducing carbon emissions in our atmosphere. It requires a global development agenda—one in which all nations are equal participants and engaged.
That is the opportunity the SDGs represent as a globally sanctioned framework and common language toward our collective future.