We find ourselves at a pivotal juncture, halfway between 2015 – the year that saw the adoption of sustainable development goals (SDGs) – and 2030 – the year when all the SDGs are supposed to be achieved and, for the first time in the history of humanity, the world would be free from extreme poverty and hunger with universal access to education and basic health care. Unfortunately, the stark reality is that our strides toward SDGs have not been on track. In fact, according to a new assessment by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, we are going backward in our journey to the sustainable and equitable future described by the SDGs.
This sorry state of affairs is also true for the Paris Climate Agreement – also signed in 2015 – to limit global warming to less than 2 °C and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030. A recently published report from the UN global stocktake, a process assessing how far we’ve come since the Paris Agreement, lays bare how far off we are from achieving those targets; at the current rate of action global temperatures are expected to rise by 2.4 to 2.6 °C.
The window of action to meet both goals is rapidly closing. We need to move from incremental change to exponential transformation if we want to achieve these goals.
Climate change and human well-being are inextricably linked. The only way forward is to look at climate, development, and well-being as a singular system and prioritize solutions that address them holistically. Development efforts that do not account for climate change are destined for failure as there is mounting evidence that the latter is negating recent advances in poverty reduction, food security, and human well-being. Similarly, climate mitigation strategies that do not enhance human well-being contradict a fundamental objective of these efforts, which is to avert the detrimental impact of climate change on human beings.
This co-dependence of climate and development is highlighted in the World Bank’s Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR) for Africa’s Sahel region which states that without urgent climate action, the region – which is already one of the poorest in the world – could see an additional 13.5 million people fall back into poverty by 2050. The report makes clear that the only way forward for the Sahelian countries to reduce climate impact and improve well-being is to implement strategies that address climate change, well-being, and development simultaneously and holistically.
But what are these interventions that can address climate, development, and well-being together?
First, there is an urgent need to change the way we grow food. In sub-Saharan Africa, not only is food insecurity more than double that of any other region but the forestry, agriculture, and land use (FALU) sector is also responsible for about 60% of the region’s total GHG emissions. While the area emits a small portion of global GHG emissions, every country and region will need to reduce emissions in order for the world to have a chance of meeting international climate goals.
Changing the way we grow food by adopting practices such as farmland restoration, conservative agriculture, regenerative annual cropping, and improving land tenure can rapidly decrease the GHG emissions associated with the FALU sector while being transformative for human health and well-being by increasing yields and improving drought resilience. Solutions such as agroforestry and silvopasture contribute even further by reducing heat stress and increasing income for farmers.
Similarly, addressing energy poverty is vital to meet both climate and developmental goals. It is well established that multidimensional poverty and access to energy are closely intertwined. Without energy, people face challenges in accessing basic amenities like lighting, cooking, heating, healthcare, education, and economic opportunity; these barriers, in turn, perpetuate a cycle of deprivation. Indeed, ending energy poverty is a necessary stop on the road to achieving many sustainable development goals.
For instance, providing clean cooking solutions to everyone by 2030 would reduce GHG emissions by 1 gigaton per year – or about 2% of annual global emissions, on par with the entire aviation industry. At the same time, this intervention would directly impact the lives of the 2.4 billion people who currently rely on polluting fuels for cooking. Benefits to human and environmental well-being from just this one solution would include reduced exposure to pollutants, decreased stress on local forests, and saving time that would otherwise be spent collecting fuelwood.
When we start thinking of development, climate, and well-being as a single system, these kinds of multifaceted, high-impact solutions abound. Renewable electricity in remote and rural areas has been shown to positively impact maternal health, education, gender equality, and access to clean water while at the same time reducing current and future emissions associated with the usage of unclean fuels.
Given how powerful these solutions are from both a climate and development standpoint, one would assume that they are a top priority for policymakers and climate funders. Yet these powerful solutions have been widely underutilized. For instance, in 2021, the FALU sector in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) received a direct investment of only 10% and 8% of the climate adaptation and mitigation finance, respectively, from multinational development banks.
Progress on clean cooking has also been unacceptably slow. If current trends continue, it's estimated that by 2030 almost 1.9 billion people could still be without access to clean cooking, directly contributing to the failure of SDGs related to poverty, health, gender, and energy.
The same is true for clean electricity. According to a recent joint report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), Africa receives only 2% of global clean energy capital even though it accounts for almost 20% of the world’s population and suffers from widespread energy poverty.
The clock is ticking; our narrow window of opportunity to alter our course is rapidly closing. To meet developmental and climate goals, there are three key areas of action.
First, climate finance in low-and middle-income countries, which is currently several times lower than what is required, must be rapidly scaled up. This will require high-income countries to quickly deliver on their past funding commitments. Increasing national debt for LMICs has also slowed climate action considerably and it’s clear that debt forgiveness may be one of the most crucial upstream solutions that could make technical implementation of climate interventions possible.
Second, intersectional interventions such as those highlighted here need to be urgently financed. Climate financing needs a new benchmark for success. It should not be about the return on investment in financial terms, but rather the return in terms of reduced emissions, transformed lives, and increased resilience in recipient communities. It's time to prioritize the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants over profit.
Third, as countries are due to update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in 2025, they should include and prioritize powerful intersectional interventions that address climate, development, and well-being simultaneously.
As global leaders, stakeholders, and climate financiers convene at the SDG summit and Climate Ambition Summit this week in New York, they hold the power to steer the world toward sustainability, equity, prosperity, and justice. By focusing on high-impact solutions deployed at a global scale, a future where we meet both our climate and development goals can be reached on the same path.
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