Soft Solutions to Hard Challenges: Climate Change and the SDGs

September 2019

Leena Srivastava has been appointed as the Deputy Director General Science of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna. Prior to this, she was the Vice Chancellor of the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) School of Advanced Studies in New Delhi since 2012. She has over three decades of research experience in the areas of energy, environment and climate change policies. She spent a residency at the Robert Bosch Academy in 2012 and 2013.  


The science of climate change has made tremendous progress in the last couple of decades, not least because of a deeper understanding of linked complex ecosystems and computing power. This understanding underscores the importance of urgent, or indeed immediate, action on both climate mitigation and adaptation. The adaptation urgency comes from the recognition that climate change is already upon us as evidenced by the increased number of heat waves, cyclones, hurricanes, and extreme rainfall events, among other forms of extreme weather. This urgency also comes from the recognition of the world’s unpreparedness to immediately stop increases in the emissions of greenhouse gases. We will thus experience further climate impacts in the coming years.

The mitigation effort, however, is of ever more serious concern because of our inability to respond to what science is calling for. Climate change threatens the very existence of planet Earth as we know it. The Paris Agreement of 2015 aimed to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. However, the pledges made by countries in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are not adequate. They would result in emissions that would lead to average global temperature increases of close to three degrees Celsius. An IPCC special report underscores the impacts of the half-degree difference of temperature increase between 1.5 degrees and two degrees. For example, the avoidance of a 0.5 degree-temperature increase could save nearly ten million people from exposure to the risks of sea level rise, reduce the proportion of the world population exposed to a climate-change induced increase in water stress by up to 50%, and reduce significantly the impacts on biodiversity and food security. However, the global community has not succeeded in strengthening the language of the Paris Agreement to reflect these new findings and recommendations.

Beyond climate change and its impacts, planet Earth is threatened by many other challenges that are likely to exacerbate the impacts and vulnerability caused by climate change. With a projected 70% of the world’s population living in urban areas by 2050, the ambient temperature increases on account of climate change will add to the urban heat island effect, which could contribute to higher temperatures of between approximately three to seven degrees Celsius. Undoubtedly, it is the poor and marginalized in urban areas who would bear the brunt of such temperature extremes. Similarly, many cities across the world are running out of water already. In India, it is expected that 21 large cities will run out of water as soon as 2020. Add the unpredictability and variability that climate change will bring to monsoon patterns and we have a recipe for disaster – both in cities and agricultural areas.

Several of these non-climate-related development challenges are the focus of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) defined in the UN Agenda 2030 document. The linkages between climate action and sustainable development has been highlighted since the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC. The need for these to progress hand-in-hand was brought to the fore by both the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030, which recognize the inter-linkages. Agenda 2030 also emphasizes the need to look at all of the 17 SDGs, including the one on climate change, as integrated and indivisible parts of a whole. But it is easier said than done.

In this article, I would like to argue for two critical levers for change:  one is the governmental system and the other is the consumer. Both of these levers are at one level extremely complex but at another are capable of providing the necessary changes in our economic systems.

At the level of governments, an innovative set of reporting metrics need to be defined that would focus clearly on outcome delivery instead of supply measures. Thus, for example, if the program outcome is defined as the number of safe and healthy deliveries of babies (including maternal health) per thousand pregnancies, it would serve maternal and child care better than a metric that asks for the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel, which is the current approach. The former would need access to clean water, reliable and good quality energy services and availability of medical supplies in addition to the health personnel. 

A similar approach in the energy sector would mean that we move away from the crass definitions of access to energy in terms of number of households connected, but instead to look at the quality of the service delivered by the energy source. For example, we should look at the quality and quantity of lighting services. Redefining the performance metrics would encourage desired outcomes in a technology- and fuel-neutral manner.

At the level of the consumer, one key target audience is the population in a country undergoing education at any level. This is an influential and captive audience that could relatively quickly help transform economies towards sustainable production and consumption options. However, today, the formal education system is not well equipped to fulfil obligations towards the planetary challenges that we are facing or towards the future generations. Efforts on teacher education, re-designing curriculum, facilitating social responsibilities, etc., are not the priority, at least not on the scale required, of any government, aid agency or philanthropic organization.

There exist several softer interventions: low-hanging fruit that could yield quick benefits at very low costs. Designing these interventions to exploit the levers of change requires multi-stakeholder consultations and investments in capacity creation. Not as exciting or attractive as technological innovations, but the returns can be game-changing!

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