Short-sighted climate policy jeopardizes other UN sustainable development goals

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 is the finding of a new 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 today.

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 video abstract:

Link to the cited study:
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.

About the MCC:
The MCC explores sustainable management and the use of common goods such as global environmental systems and social infrastructures in the context of climate change. Seven working groups conduct research on the topics of economic growth and development, resources and international trade, cities and infrastructure, governance and scientific policy advice. The MCC was jointly founded by the Mercator Foundation and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

Media Contact:
Jan Bruns
Head of Press and Public Relations
Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC)
Telephone: +49 (0) 30 338 5537 201

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