FAQ 1.2: How will changes in the ocean and cryosphere affect meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Ocean and cryosphere change affect our ability to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Progress on the SDGs support climate action that will reduce future ocean and cryosphere change, and as well as the adaptation responses to unavoidable changes. There are also trade-offs between SDGs and measures that help communities to adjust to their changing environment, but limiting greenhouse gas emissions opens more options for effective adaptation and sustainable development.

The SDGs were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 to support action for people, planet and prosperity (FAQ 1.2, Figure 1). The 17 goals and their 169 targets strive to end poverty and hunger, protect the planet and reduce gender, social and economic inequities by 2030.

SDG 13 (Climate Action) explicitly recognises that changing climatic conditions are a global concern. Climate change is already causing pervasive changes in Earth’s ocean and cryosphere (FAQ 1.1). These changes are impacting food, water and health securities, with consequences for achieving SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), and SDG 1 (No Poverty). Climate change impacts on Earth’s ocean and cryosphere also affect the environmental goals for SDG 14 (Life below Water) and SDG 15 (Life on Land), with additional implications for many of the other SDGs.

SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) will be affected by ocean and cryosphere changes. Melting mountain glaciers bring an initial increase in water, but as glaciers continue to shrink so too will the essential water they provide to millions of mountain dwellers, downstream communities, and cities. These populations also depend on water flow from the high mountains for drinking, sanitation, and irrigation, and for SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy). Water security is also threatened by changes in the magnitude and seasonality of rainfall, driven by rising ocean temperatures, which increases the risk of severe storms and flooding in some regions, or the risk of more severe or more frequent droughts in other regions. Among other effects, ongoing sea level rise is allowing salt water to intrude further inland, contaminating drinking water and irrigation sources for some coastal populations. Actions to address these threats will likely require new infrastructure to manage rain, melt water, and river flow, in order to make water supplies more reliable. These actions would also benefit SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) by reducing the risk of flooding and negative health outcomes posed by extreme rainfall and outbursts of glacial melt.

Climate change impacts on the ocean and cryosphere also have many implications for progress on food security that is addressed in SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). Changes in rainfall patterns caused by ocean warming will increase aridity in some areas and bring more (or more intense) rainfall to others. In mountain regions, these changes bring varying challenges for maintaining reliable crops and livestock production. Some adaptation opportunities might be found in developing strains of crops and livestock better adapted to the future climate conditions, but this response option is also challenged by the rapid rate of climate change. In the Arctic, very rapidly warming temperatures, diminishing sea ice, reduced snow cover and degradation of permafrost are restricting the habitats and migration patterns of important food sources (SDG 2 Zero Hunger), including reindeer and several marine mammals (SDG 15 Life on Land; SDG 14 Life below Water), resulting in reduced hunting opportunities for staple foods that many northern Indigenous communities depend upon.

Rising temperatures, and changes in ocean nutrients, acidity and salinity are altering SDG 14 (Life Below Water). The productivity and distributions of some fish species are changing in ways that alter availability of fish to long-established fisheries, whereas the range of fish populations may move to become available in some new coastal and open ocean areas. 

Ocean changes are of concern for small island developing states and coastal cities and communities. Beyond possible reductions in marine food supply and related risks for SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), their lives, livelihoods and well-being are also threatened in ways that are linked to several SDGs, including SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure), and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). For example, sea level rise and warming oceans can cause inundation of coastal homes and infrastructure, more powerful tropical storms, declines in established economies such as tourism and losses of cultural heritage and identity. Improved community and coastal infrastructure can help to adapt to these changes, and more effective and faster disaster responses from health sectors and other emergency services can assist the populations who experience these impacts. In some situations, the most appropriate responses may involve relocation of critical services and, in some cases, communities; and for some populations, migration away from their homeland may become the only viable response.

Without transformative adaptation and mitigation, climate change could undermine progress towards achieving the 2030 SDGs, and make it more difficult to implement CRDPs in the longer term. Reducing global warming (mitigation) provides the best possibility to limit the speed and extent of ocean and cryosphere change and give more options for effective adaptation and sustainable development. Progress on SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality) and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) can moderate the vulnerabilities that shape people’s risk to ocean and cryosphere change, while SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Institutions) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) will help to facilitate the scales of adaptation and mitigation responses required to achieve sustainable development. Investment in social and physical infrastructure that supports adaptation to inevitable ocean and cryosphere changes will enable people to participate in initiatives to achieve the SDGs. Current and past IPCC efforts have focused on identifying CRDPs. Such adaptation and mitigation strategies, supported by adequate investments, and understanding the potential for SDG initiatives to increase the exposure or vulnerability of the activities to climate change hazards, could also constitute pathways for progress on the SDGs.