COP25 has been billed as a “time for action”, and many hope that it will be a “turning point in climate ambition” before the Paris Agreement begins in 2020. At the same time, there are growing signs that climate justice is becoming a hot political, even security, issue within the international climate domain. It’s therefore imperative that discussions in Madrid account for countries’ broader commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the central pillar of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Climate action and sustainable development cut across nearly every area of policy and decision-making. It stands to reason that the multiple policies that countries choose to implement the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda need to be aligned, complementary and, where possible, mutually reinforcing.

Achieving this kind of policy coherence isn’t helped by the fact that the two agendas are governed separately at the international level, with limited interaction between them. Countries report progress on the 2030 Agenda to the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), while the Paris Agreement is governed through the annual conferences of the parties (COPs) under the UNFCCC. And the two processes involve different timelines, reporting requirements, political priorities, and national institutions and actors.

As we discovered in a recent set of country case studies, incoherence between climate and development policies remains a real and widespread problem at the national level, which all too often risks hurting the poorest and widening inequalities.

Woman sitting between motorcycles, Galle, Sri Lanka
Photo: Woman sitting between motorcycles, Galle, Sri Lanka – Kanchana Amilani / Unsplash

Evidence from the ground suggests: When climate and sustainable development policies clash, inequality is a recurring theme.

National implementation

Earlier this year, we carried out case studies of how coherence or incoherence between climate and sustainable development policies manifests itself in six countries: Germany, Sweden, South Africa, Kenya, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The research took the form of expert interviews with key stakeholders in the climate and development space, along with analysis of national policy documents.

One aim was to identify the key issues at the intersection of climate and sustainable development policy in each country, to guide more in-depth studies.

We took climate policy – starting from the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of the Paris Agreement and SDG 13 on climate action, as well as climate-relevant national policies – as the entry point for each case study, then looked for the strongest positive and negative interactions with different SDGs, and analysed how these mapped on to broad policy areas.

A first key insight from the study is that whether these interactions are synergistic or conflicting depends to a great extent on the policy response taken. In Kenya and Sri Lanka, for example, investing in hydropower and drought-tolerant crops could mitigate trade-offs around competing demands for water, enabling progress on multiple targets such as energy access, food security and poverty reduction.

Water flowing out of the reservoir of the Nam Theun 2 Dam.
Hydropower projects may involve trade-offs with competing demands for water. Photo: Asian Development Bank / Flickr.

The evidence from the ground suggested that when conflicts between the goals do occur, inequality – in different guises – is a recurring theme. In all six countries, we found the potential for goal conflicts around the food-energy-water-land nexus, with implications for inequality. Below are some examples of incoherence from three other key policy areas.

(Un)just energy transitions

Germany, South Africa and the Philippines all shared major challenges around achieving a just energy transition away from coal. In Germany, the coal sector is a significant employer. The Coal Commission (Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment) was set up in 2018 to facilitate a just transition from coal power to renewables, including compensating and finding alternative jobs for coal sector workers. On the face of it, this suggests coherence between climate and socio-economic policy. However, the Commission’s plans include a gradual phase-out of coal by 2038, which is eight years later than would be needed to reach the Paris target of 1.5 degrees, according to analysts.

A more extreme example appears in the Philippines, whose 2016 Green Jobs Act envisages training programmes for workers in green industries to facilitate a just transition to a greener economy. However, the country still plans to construct more than 10 GW of coal-fired power plants by 2025 under its Coal Roadmap 2017–2040 for the purposes of energy security.

In South Africa, the coal industry is a particularly important source of jobs in already marginalized communities. Reductions in coal power generation would potentially compromise their livelihoods. Unlike the other two countries, South Africa appears to lack any plan for a just transition.

Machine at an open-pit mine in Welzow, Germany.

Phasing out coal – and closing mines like this one in Welzow – continues to be a major challenge for Germany. Photo: Kurt Cotoaga / Unsplash.

Economic growth at all costs?

At the international level, a perceived conflict between climate mitigation and the rights of low-income countries to pursue economic development and reduce poverty has historically been a sticking point in climate negotiations.

This dynamic was clearly visible in the developing countries we studied. As an example, addressing poverty and inequality and enhancing energy access are stated goals of Kenya’s Vision 2030 policy package for advancing economic growth. As part of its strategy to do this, Kenya is intensifying exploitation of its coal resources, but it is hard to see how this is coherent with the emission reductions committed to in its climate policies.

Sri Lanka is also prioritizing economic growth in order to achieve development goals such as better healthcare, higher employment rates and reducing poverty. However, local experts we spoke to said the country’s approach relies on the trickle-down effect, and is not addressing core challenges of poverty and inequality. It is also overshadowing climate-related goals, meaning that economic growth is not sustainable.

Urban-rural divides

Finally, in Sweden, we found trade-offs around social equality appearing in the form of an urban-rural divide. For example, climate policies to reduce emissions from transport by promoting biofuels risk driving up demand and pushing up prices, with a disproportionate impact on car-dependent rural populations with less purchasing power.

Leave no-one behind

Overall, our scoping study suggested that the aim of leaving no-one behind, an explicit pledge in the 2030 Agenda, can be severely compromised when climate and sustainable development policies clash. As such, there is a need to ensure that leaving no-one behind is also a central consideration in the Paris Agreement agenda.

The potential synergies within and between these policy areas can only be exploited with coherent, coordinated policy and implementation. Trade-offs need to be carefully managed to mitigate the risk of exacerbating inequalities.

With the Paris Agreement being operationalized next year and 68 countries aiming to enhance ambition in the next round of NDCs, we have good opportunities to better align policy and action on climate and sustainable development. The UNFCCC could take the lead in better coordinating its governance of global climate action with the 2030 Agenda, if only to encourage more coherent policy-making at the national level.