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Climate Change

Climate Change and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda: The Missed Opportunity

by Dr. Isabel Studer
May 18, 2021

It is striking that a greater synergy has not been established between the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as both were universally adopted by the international community in 2015.

Climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity today. What is at stake is life on Earth as we know it. Climate change results from a rise in the planet's temperature, caused by the concentration of greenhouse gases generated by burning fossil fuels. These fuels represent more than 80% of the energy used in the world and are thus essential to the global economy. However, they also account for two-thirds of global carbon emissions. So, replacing them with clean energy, and fostering a transition to a low carbon economy, is indispensable to stop global warming. 

The prevention of an increase in the planetary temperature above 1.5º C is the principal objective of the historic Paris Climate Agreement (PCA), adopted in 2015 by 192 countries. The agreement aims to achieve such a goal by reducing carbon emissions (mitigation) through international cooperation. Achieving the PCA's goals has proven to be arduous, as global energy systems define existing power structures and economic development models. Given that the planet's temperature has already augmented over 1º C and climate impacts have become more extreme, global efforts to reduce poverty, inequality, and the accelerated biodiversity loss are in jeopardy. In this climate emergency context, the international community's failure to embed climate change as a cross-cutting issue of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is striking.

This global framework, also adopted in 2015 and known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aims to fundamentally transform development models to integrate sustainability in the people, the planet, and the prosperity agendas. The SDGs, embraced by developing and developed countries, as well as businesses around the world, are the mandatory route to combat poverty, inequality, degradation of the environment, the acceptance of sustainable systems of production and consumption, and clean and affordable energy for all.

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Due to its sweeping nature, climate change intersects with practically all 17 SDGs. However, the Sustainable Development Agenda only approaches climate change narrowly, limiting it to one goal. SDG 13 explicitly addresses climate adaptation methods, adoption of climate policies, and awareness-raising of climate risks. While these are critical pieces to the climate puzzle, the silence on mitigation practices central to the 1.5º C goal is noteworthy.

Harnessing the energy transition, essential to reversing the rising trends of climate change, also requires undoing historically upward trends of inequity and social exclusion. SDG 7, which aims to make clean energy accessible for all, underscores the development aspects of adopting such energy sources. But does not refer to such issues as they relate to the mitigation of carbon emissions. The steep drop in costs of renewable energies is a crucial driver in achieving energy equity and creating jobs with dignity and economic growth (SDG 8). Last year, jobs created by clean energies reached 11.5 million globally. Also, solar and bioenergy contribute most significantly to labor inclusion as they hire a higher proportion of women (32%) than the oil and gas industry (22%). By contrast, there is little reference in the SDGs regarding the inequality associated with stopping the use of fossil fuels.

View of a windmill farm in La Ventosa, Juchitan community, Oaxaca State, Mexico; Getty

View of a windmill farm in La Ventosa, Juchitan community, Oaxaca State, Mexico;

Getty 

Other missing opportunities for establishing a more direct connection between the climate agenda and efforts sustainable development include the electrification of transportation that will reduce air pollution, contribute to sustainable communities (SDG 11) and improve human health (SDG 3). Another omitted link is how the reduction in the use of fossil fuels could help advance SDG 2. Fossil fuels tend to use high quantities of water for cooling in the generation process, thus polluting and diminishing critical water resources that negatively affect access to drinking water and clean sanitation services.

The benefits of climate action for sustainable development are not limited to economic and societal positives. Nature-based climate solutions, such as the conservation and sustainable use of forests, mangroves, and wetlands (SDG 15), can reduce one-third of the emissions necessary to keep global temperatures from rising past the PCA target. To illustrate, planting 900 million hectares of forest would result in the absorption of carbon dioxide in an amount equivalent to the emissions of the last 20 years. Solutions such as these would stop the ever-accelerating loss of biodiversity—today, about one million species are in danger of extinction. They would ensure the availability and quality of water (SDG 6) and soil, resulting in improved productivity and the creation of jobs in agriculture.

Children from around the world stand in a procession with world leaders and country delegates in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Signing Ceremony for the Paris Agreement climate change accord on April 22, 2016 in New York City.; Getty

Children from around the world stand in a procession with world leaders and country delegates in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations Signing Ceremony for the Paris Agreement climate change accord on April 22, 2016 in New York City.;

Getty 

As these examples demonstrate, taking advantage of the existing synergy between the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement could be critical to address the climate emergency we are facing. Both frameworks laid out ambitious, cross-cutting plans to drive a profound global transformation to existing development models. Hopefully, the solutions that arise from COP26 in Glasgow will galvanize the opportunity of looking at these frameworks as part of one continuum instead of as individual efforts. Doing so will enhance the chances not of saving the planet but humanity itself. We all know the opportunity is there, and the stakes are incredibly high, but the question is will we seize it?

Dr. Isabel Studer is the newly appointed Alianza University of California-Mexico director, Isabel has a unique career in government, academia and civil society. She was Director for Strategic Partnerships in Latin America and Executive Director for Mexico and Central America at The Nature Conservancy. Senior Fellow at the Arsht Rockefeller Resilience Center of The Atlantic Council, she is currently President of the Board of the Mexican Climate Initiative and of Sostenibilidad Global. A Fulbright and Ford Scholar, Isabel earned her Ph.D. and M.A. at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and her BA degree in international relations from El Colegio de México.

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