2015 was a decisive year for multilateralism and sustainable development. Under the umbrella of the United Nations, we are making progress towards meeting the targets set at the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the 17 SDGs in the 2030 Agenda. Both agreements articulate a common direction, and a political project based on different forms of cooperation and coalitions orchestrated around each country’s specific needs. Both pacts have the support of the vast majority of countries around the world.

SDGs and Climate Change: A shared agenda

Not only do the two pacts have many interconnected goals, but they also emphasise the fact that one needs the other. The 2030 Agenda states that the provision of universal access to all essential services, including health, education, water, energy and food is unsustainable if we do not address the issues that lead to vulnerability, both in terms of social inequalities, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, we will only be able to stop the environmental degradation caused by global warming if we simultaneously create a more equitable society. A society that responds universally to the basic needs of development, ensuring that its technical-economic viability is conditioned by the implementation of profound and unprecedented changes in all its systems, including changes in consumption and production models [1]1 — AR5, IPCC, 2014 . Inevitably, it will require a mass departure from our current energy model, replacing fossil fuels with renewables. But we cannot stop there, because many of these greener energies also rely on processes that consume limited natural resources and affect the climate throughout their life-cycle. Therefore, we must go further than the necessary carbon content improvements and develop a whole new approach to energy services and their efficiency that will enable us to reduce our consumption of energy, materials, and water in a demographically burgeoning world with an acute development deficit. In short, the challenge requires us to rethink the societal model we live in and to which many emerging and developing countries aspire. The possibility of falling into a green neo-capitalism with no respect for human rights, equity and climate justice is a real and present danger as we seek greater climate resilience. A threat that the SDGs could protect us from, in the same way as they would protect us from dictatorial totalitarianism in the name of sustainability.

The 2030 Agenda states that the provision of universal access to all essential services is unsustainable if we do not address the issues that lead to vulnerability in terms of social inequalities, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss

This harmony between the development agenda and the fight against climate change, conceptualised under the term sustainable development and institutionalised in these two formidable international pacts, has evolved over time and is far from free of nuances. In practice, and during the transition between models, synergies are not absolute, and compromises must often be made. Another factor is that both synergies and trade-offs are specific to a given geographical and temporal context. Yet, as the Covid pandemic evidenced in 2020, the two different crises are critically converging. No country —whether rich or poor— is immune to the impacts of climate change on human health [2]2 — Lancet Countdown (2020) Available online. . Without doubt, adopting a coherent agenda for a global emergency [3]3 — Puri Canals, et al. (2020) “The 2030 Agenda: Transforming the world in a planetary emergency”, Revista IDEES. See the editorial of this monographic number online. is the key to moving forward, and understanding its nuances will guarantee we do so inclusively and at the necessary pace. The following sections provide an overview of these nuances.

Misconceptions we need to leave behind

In 1972, Dr D. Meadows coordinated a report to the Club of Rome entitled “The Limits to Growth”, and in 1973, a series of essays were published by the German economist E. F. Schumacher, under the heading “Small Is Beautiful: A Study Of Economics As If People Mattered”. We are approaching, therefore, their fiftieth anniversary. In 1987, Dr G.H. Brundtland introduced the term “Sustainable Development” in a report called “Our Common Future”, some thirty years before the United Nations revealed its proposal for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, in 1979 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) held the 1st World Climate Conference and called on governments worldwide to monitor and anticipate potential climate changes caused by humans that may threaten the welfare of humanity. Nine years later the WMO and the United Nations Environment Programme created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess the magnitude and chronology of climate change, estimate its possible environmental and socio-economic effects and put forward realistic response strategies. But it was not until the fifth IPCC report presented between 2013 and 2014 that the indisputable influence of human activity on the global temperature was recognised, and not until 2015 when all the countries accepted the finding during the 21st World Climate Conference (COP-21) in Paris.

This historical context shows that the first misconception we must leave behind is that the “discovery” of planetary boundaries is recent, as some articles seem to suggest. In the same vein, the second misconception is thinking that until COP-21, we were unaware that global climate change, produced by humankind as we understand it, was both a reality and an emergency. On the contrary, the brief history outlined above proves that the first scientific attestations on the subject were made about 50 years ago, and although international studies, reports and meetings have worked tirelessly to forge agreements, the consensus process to establish how we should care for the Earth and everything that inhabits it is painfully drawn-out, or worse still, unacceptably slow.

The third misconception is that, for a long time, climate change and sustainable development were thought to be unrelated, and the solutions to the two issues were thought to be non-complimentary. So, why did it take us so long to recognise the connection that, today, seems so obvious? To a certain extent, because we didn’t have sufficient knowledge or, more specifically, scientific evidence. The Brundtland Report concluded that we should protect the overall balance and worth of the stock of natural capital, establish criteria and instruments to assess the short, medium and long-term costs and benefits to reflect the real socioeconomic impact and consumption and conservation values and that resources should be distributed and consumed fairly across all nations and regions of the world. But it did not explicitly refer to climate change. At the same time, the IPCC reports focused on improving our understanding and modelling of the climate system and mapping the direct and indirect consequences of the increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, clearly advancing the state of knowledge with every edition. In 2014, the IPCC presented the broad interactions between adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development in the fifth report of Working Group II on Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation. At the end of 2018, the 1.5ºC Special Report noted that maintaining the global temperature increase at 1.5 rather than 2ºC would positively impact sustainable development, poverty eradication, and the reduction of inequalities, so long as synergies are maximised and trade-offs are minimised. Current evidence of climate change impacts proves that vulnerabilities cannot be resolved without addressing both sustainability and climate together.

Institutional action came in 1992, at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit where the decision was taken to draw-up two new pacts, one on climate change and one on biodiversity, to precisely and decisively address the two issues. And as a result, States began to respond by establishing similar specific lines of action to tackle climate change. The European Community followed suit in 1993, by approving the fifth European Community Programme of policy and action in relation to the environment and sustainable development. Since 1995, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has hosted international climate negotiations. These negotiations have witnessed the change in our perception of how climate goals interrelate with development goals. Prior to the 2015 Paris Summit, the agreements reached reflected a degree of juxtaposition between development (rather than sustainable development) and the fight against climate change. Increased incomes were associated with a growth in GHG emissions, thus creating tension between development and climate change. The divide between wealthy and impoverished countries formed the central basis of agreements, and, given its unquestionable historical responsibility, climate change mitigation was simplified to a burden to be born by the North.

The notion that decarbonisation is expensive is being replaced by the idea of an investment that can help create jobs and prosperity in the short, medium and long term

While climate justice rightly remains the backbone of the negotiations, the Paris Agreement became the first pact to detail precise, substantial and legally binding obligations for all countries [4]4 — Waisman, H, Torres Gunfaus, M, Spencer, T, Marquard, A (2016). “Emerging from Paris: Post-2015 process, action and research agenda” Available online. . The varying national circumstances are taken into account to make the path to the end goal more flexible, but the goal is now positioned within the context of sustainable development, and it is global and shared by all. The notion that decarbonisation is expensive is being replaced by the idea of an investment that can help create jobs and prosperity in the short, medium and long term. However, the ability to make this investment differs, and this is where climate justice requires us to ensure all countries and communities, especially the most vulnerable, can join and benefit from the transformation and adapt to the already inevitable changes.

Interdependent goals

Believing that the 2030 Agenda only addresses climate change through SDG 13 on “Climate Action”, is a mistake. A tool developed [5]5 — The SDG Climate Action Nexus tool (SCAN-tool). See the tool online. to explore the interdependencies between mitigation and adaptation actions and the SDGs identifies a total of 982 direct relationships. And that’s without taking into account SDG 13 itself, or SDG 17, which deals with the necessary mobilisation of resources. The relationship is incredibly pronounced for some of the SDGs, while in a few primarily cross-cutting ones, there are few or no direct relationships. SDGs 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and 15 (Life on Land) have the most relationships with climate action [6]6 — SCAN (SDG & Climate Action Nexus) tool: Linking Climate Action and the Sustainable Development Goals. Key findings note. Available online. .

While the geographical context may be critical, the interdependence is also undeniable. One of the first regional reports on the SDGs, if not the first, to be published in Europe was “The 2030 Agenda: Transform Catalonia, Improve the World” report by the Advisory Council for the Sustainable Development of Catalonia (CADS), which was presented to the Government in 2016. The report used the term ‘climate change’ 170 times and in practically all of its chapters. In fact, SDG 13 addresses the impacts of climate change as one of the key factors limiting sustainable development and compromising the achievement of the goals contained in the 2030 Agenda. But given that impacts in sectors such as water, biodiversity, or agriculture, as well as socioeconomic dimensions, are addressed in other SDGs, 13 focuses on climate-related risks and disasters, and the ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change at a governmental, social and individual level. It is an SDG that is both subject-specific and cross-cutting: one that seeks to “improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction”, making clear that without education, awareness and citizen empowerment there can be no way forward.

Let’s look at examples of how the other SDGs combine to create a global approach to climate change based on existing scientific evidence [7]7 — IPCC (2019). Special Report 1.5ºC. Available online. . The first is SDG 1 (No Poverty). Climate change exacerbates poverty and inequalities (SDG 10) because its impacts disproportionately affect the vulnerable population. On the other hand, and particularly in regard to electricity generation, there is concern that the deployment of some technologies may increase the cost of electricity, worsening poverty in the short term.

SDG 13 (Climate Action) addresses the impacts of climate change as one of the key factors limiting sustainable development and compromising the achievement of the goals contained in the 2030 Agenda

SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) suggests, among other things, that we must ensure energy crops do not compete with food production and that to guarantee sustainable food production systems we must strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters. Indeed, the influence of rising temperatures on the phenological cycle of crops and their water requirement is undeniable and interrelates with other SDGs such as number 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). In our country, the latter is especially relevant because climate change is having an acute effect on water resources in the Mediterranean area, reducing them while at the same time increasing heavy rains in Europe. The result is a path of destruction left by floods and hailstorms in some places, while in others, the supply of irrigation water is under threat, not to mention that the southern Mediterranean region and other parts of Africa and America are experiencing subsistence water scarcity.

Water scarcity can have repercussions for SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) in terms of hydroelectric power production or the necessary desalination or reuse of water and the associated energy consumption. The rapid deployment of renewables and the dramatic reduction of fossil fuels align with one of the specific targets of SDG 7 (7.2), and small-scale renewables, or stand-alone solutions, have enormous potential to improve energy access for people living in remote areas. However, the transition from fossil fuels to renewables can have short-term adverse effects on energy affordability in countries highly dependent on fossil fuel generation or the earnings from mining and exporting them. In certain places, offshore wind power plants can have adverse implications for SDG 14 (Life Below Water). SDG 14 recognises the role of the oceans and the need to conserve the functionality of marine ecosystems as part of climate change mitigation. It also warns that the rising sea levels, increased sea temperatures, and acidification caused by climate change are modifying the composition of species in marine ecosystems.

SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) not only requires that this global economic growth be compatible with the other SDGs but also that we must consider how the different economic sectors will be affected by our transformation towards decarbonised societies, and what new opportunities that shift will provide in, for example, the tourism or automotive industry. Mitigation actions in the transport, waste, housing and industry sectors are generally directly related to SDG 8 due to their positive contribution in terms of added economic value (investments) or employment.

With regard to SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), we must also consider the possible effects of climate change on infrastructures (erosion, rising temperatures, floods, etc.,) and incorporate measures to guarantee their resilience including, and linked to SDG 13 on Climate Action, the development of targeted emergency response programmes to deal with extreme weather events. The adaptation of energy-intensive industry, such as steel production, to development paths compatible with the 1.5ºC objective, will require remarkable innovation processes in line with SDG 9, supranational alliances (SDGs 16 and 17), and sustainable consumption (SDG 12). The mobilisation of financing and the development of sustainable mobility are essential aspects directly related to SDG 10 on reducing inequalities.

In a post-pandemic context, now more than ever, we need to ensure that our efforts to recover socially and economically are in line with the goals of both agreements: the alliances that emerge from them can provide a sound basis for cooperatively organising a way out of the crisis that addresses the structural causes of our vulnerabilities

SDG 11 aims to ensure that all human settlements are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, whether they are cities or indigenous communities, and is committed to using more energy-efficient building materials and structures that may even be able to act as carbon sinks. It is clear that an increase in green areas can reduce the rise in temperature and the Urban Heat Island phenomenon (the warming of cities as ecosystems), and mitigate adverse health conditions, linking to SDG 3. SDG 3 raises the issue of how climate change favours the establishment of vectors (e.g. mosquitoes) that transmit emerging diseases. Another factor is the increase in mortality produced by the increasingly common occurrence of heat waves and unusually hot spells and the diseases and deaths directly caused by pollution. The change in energy model is also directly related to health, largely because of its impact on air quality. SDG 15 (Life on Land) is closely related to SDG 13 given the role of forests in absorbing carbon, but also due to the issue of forest fires, which requires a dynamic land and natural heritage management policy. This particular SDG integrates the protection of biodiversity and is, therefore, linked to the next point, where a third factor enters the scenario, the Covid-19 pandemic, the onset of which has been closely linked to biodiversity loss. Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17) and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) are prerequisites for the implementation of a large number of climate actions, which depend on the capacity for innovation, access and the deployment of technologies.

Final thoughts

In the previous section, we demonstrated that both the climate and sustainable development agendas have interdependent goals. Most interactions are mutually reinforcing, and, therefore, climate action facilitates the achievement of the SDGs. In fact, a climate ambition that would limit the rise in temperature to 1.5ºC, as opposed to the less ambitious 2ºC goal, would make it considerably easier to achieve many aspects of sustainable development — including poverty eradication and reducing inequality — (IPCC SR1.5, 2019). In any case, tackling climate change will require sustainability and vice versa.

However, what is true is that the alignment between the two agendas has been the subject of extensive study in recent years, as has the implementation of decision-making processes based on multicriteria analysis. And different proposals for action present different challenges in terms of their implementation and can have negative consequences for sustainable development in certain contexts. This is why it is imperative that all subnational countries and jurisdictions explore roadmaps with a long-term perspective to understand how these interrelationships are articulated in a particular region and make appropriate short term decisions. Climate and sustainability, in fact, offer an opportunity to establish or strengthen comprehensive planning processes and multi-ministerial or inter-departmental coordination. Potential negative impacts can be avoided with good transition management, either by enabling the necessary conditions or establishing compensatory measures. In other words, well thought-out actions can progress towards multiple goals.

For all these reasons, the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda must be consistent and integrated. For example, the destruction of the Amazon forests to make way for crops and pastures (SDG 2) and the plans to install hundreds of hydroelectric dams there (SDG 6) are a clear example of a deliberate misinterpretation of the SDGs and the Paris Agreements. The road to compliance with SDG 6 must go hand in hand with SDGs 8, 9 and 11, not to mention SDG 15. Also, changes in our societal model must, of course, lead to a decrease in energy consumption but, above all, to a more equitable distribution of energy resources. Ultimately, sustainable development must avoid falling into the trap of aggravating climate injustice. Conversely, climate action cannot turn its back on any of the SDGs.

In a post-pandemic context, now more than ever, we need to ensure that our efforts to recover socially and economically are in line with the goals of both agreements. The alliances that emerge from them can provide a sound basis for cooperatively organising a way out of the crisis that addresses the structural causes of our vulnerabilities. We must overcome three main challenges if we are to move forward. Firstly, we will need to mobilise funding to effectively accelerate the implementation of both agendas. Secondly, we will require coordination between institutions and different spheres of governance to maximise synergies and minimise possible negative impacts. And lastly, citizen engagement will be essential if we are to become aware of the reality and extent of the impacts of climate change and the societal transformation that must occur if we are to meet the 1.5ºC goal. A transformation that, without doubt, represents an opportunity for a better world, primarily codified by the SDG indicators.


    1 —

    AR5, IPCC, 2014

    2 —

    Lancet Countdown (2020) Available online.

    3 —

    Puri Canals, et al. (2020) “The 2030 Agenda: Transforming the world in a planetary emergency”, Revista IDEES. See the editorial of this monographic number online.

    4 —

    Waisman, H, Torres Gunfaus, M, Spencer, T, Marquard, A (2016). “Emerging from Paris: Post-2015 process, action and research agenda” Available online.

    5 —

    The SDG Climate Action Nexus tool (SCAN-tool). See the tool online.

    6 —

    SCAN (SDG & Climate Action Nexus) tool: Linking Climate Action and the Sustainable Development Goals. Key findings note. Available online.

    7 —

    IPCC (2019). Special Report 1.5ºC. Available online.

Maria del Carmen Llasat

Maria de Carmen Llasat Botija is Professor of Atmospheric Physics in the Department of Applied Physics at the University of Barcelona. She is a professor of the Physics degree and the master's degrees in Meteorology and in Integrated Water Science and Management, and also coordinates the Master's degree in Applied Climatology and Media at the UB. She holds a PhD in Physical Sciences from the University of Barcelona, and her research focuses on the study of natural hazards of meteorological origin and the impact of climate change, as well as on improving public awareness and resilience. She directs the Group for the Analysis of Adverse Meteorological Situations (GAMA) and is a member of the Outreach Commission of the University of Barcelona. She is currently a member of the steering committees of the HYMEX and MedECC programs and of the scientific committees of the OPCC and the Adour-Garonne Agency, among others. She was president of the Natural Hazards Section of the European Geophysical Society, executive editor of the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Science and international coordinator of the Heavy Rains working group of the AMHY/FRIEND program of UNESCO. She also leads the Social Impact group of the HYMEX project and coordinates the Meteorology Research Group. She has published about 200 articles.

Marta Torres Gunfaus

Marta Torres Gunfaus is a senior researcher on energy and climate at IDDRI (Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales), a Paris-based international think tank working on sustainable development issues and long-term climate strategies to address climate change in the European Union. Her research focuses on long-term transitions, complexity theories and mitigation mechanisms. With more than 15 years of professional experience in climate policy, Marta Torres has worked in the public, private and academic sectors as a project implementer and project manager, and has been part of intergovernmental bodies such as the European Commission, the International Energy Agency and the International Carbon Action Partnership. She was Head of the Mitigation area of the Catalan Office of Climate Change for the Catalan Government, and later served as coordinator and co-director of the international program Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios (MAPS), fostered by the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where she worked on national transitions to decarbonized societies and the formulation of public policies and mitigation commitments in Brazil, Peru, Chile and Colombia, among other emerging countries, in the context of the Paris Agreement.