Summary: Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs of people living today without compromising the needs of future generations, while balancing social, economic and environmental considerations. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include targets for eradicating poverty; ensuring health, energy and food security; reducing inequality; protecting ecosystems; pursuing sustainable cities and economies; and a goal for climate action (SDG 13). Climate change affects the ability to achieve sustainable development goals, and limiting warming to 1.5°C will help meet some sustainable development targets. Pursuing sustainable development will influence emissions, impacts and vulnerabilities. Responses to climate change in the form of adaptation and mitigation will also interact with sustainable development with positive effects, known as synergies, or negative effects, known as trade-offs. Responses to climate change can be planned to maximize synergies and limit trade-offs with sustainable development.
For more than 25 years, the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations have embraced the concept of sustainable development to promote well-being and meet the needs of today’s population without compromising the needs of future generations. This concept spans economic, social and environmental objectives including poverty and hunger alleviation, equitable economic growth, access to resources, and the protection of water, air and ecosystems. Between 1990 and 2015, the UN monitored a set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They reported progress in reducing poverty, easing hunger and child mortality, and improving access to clean water and sanitation. But with millions remaining in poor health, living in poverty and facing serious problems associated with climate change, pollution and land-use change, the UN decided that more needed to be done. In 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were endorsed as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 17 SDGs (Figure FAQ 5.1) apply to all countries and have a timeline for success by 2030. The SDGs seek to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger; ensure health, education, peace, safe water and clean energy for all; promote inclusive and sustainable consumption, cities, infrastructure and economic growth; reduce inequality including gender inequality; combat climate change and protect oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.
Climate change and sustainable development are fundamentally connected. Previous IPCC reports found that climate change can undermine sustainable development, and that well-designed mitigation and adaptation responses can support poverty alleviation, food security, healthy ecosystems, equality and other dimensions of sustainable development. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require mitigation actions and adaptation measures to be taken at all levels. These adaptation and mitigation actions would include reducing emissions and increasing resilience through technology and infrastructure choices, as well as changing behaviour and policy. These actions can interact with sustainable development objectives in positive ways that strengthen sustainable development, known as synergies. Or they can interact in negative ways, where sustainable development is hindered or reversed, known as trade-offs.
An example of a synergy is sustainable forest management, which can prevent emissions from deforestation and take up carbon to reduce warming at reasonable cost. It can work synergistically with other dimensions of sustainable development by providing food (SDG 2) and clean water (SDG 6) and protecting ecosystems (SDG 15). Other examples of synergies are when climate adaptation measures, such as coastal or agricultural projects, empower women and benefit local incomes, health and ecosystems.
An example of a trade-off can occur if ambitious climate change mitigation compatible with 1.5°C changes land use in ways that have negative impacts on sustainable development. An example could be turning natural forests, agricultural areas, or land under indigenous or local ownership to plantations for bioenergy production. If not managed carefully, such changes could undermine dimensions of sustainable development by threatening food and water security, creating conflict over land rights and causing biodiversity loss. Another trade-off could occur for some countries, assets, workers and infrastructure already in place if a switch is made from fossil fuels to other energy sources without adequate planning for such a transition. Trade-offs can be minimized if effectively managed, as when care is taken to improve bioenergy crop yields to reduce harmful land-use change or where workers are retrained for employment in lower carbon sectors.
Limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C can make it much easier to achieve the SDGs, but it is also possible that pursuing the SDGs could result in trade-offs with efforts to limit climate change. There are trade-offs when people escaping from poverty and hunger consume more energy or land and thus increase emissions, or if goals for economic growth and industrialization increase fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, efforts to reduce poverty and gender inequalities and to enhance food, health and water security can reduce vulnerability to climate change. Other synergies can occur when coastal and ocean ecosystem protection reduces the impacts of climate change on these systems. The sustainable development goal of affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) specifically targets access to renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are important to ambitious mitigation and limiting warming to 1.5°C.
The link between sustainable development and limiting global warming to 1.5°C is recognized by the SDG for climate action (SDG 13), which seeks to combat climate change and its impacts while acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.
The challenge is to put in place sustainable development policies and actions that reduce deprivation, alleviate poverty and ease ecosystem degradation while also lowering emissions, reducing climate change impacts and facilitating adaptation. It is important to strengthen synergies and minimize trade-offs when planning climate change adaptation and mitigation actions. Unfortunately, not all trade-offs can be avoided or minimized, but careful planning and implementation can build the enabling conditions for long-term sustainable development.