Sustainable development won't happen without climate change action

by Thoriq Ibrahim | AOSIS
Wednesday, 22 March 2017 16:54 GMT

A worker inspects solar panels at a solar farm in Dunhuang, 950km (590 miles) northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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If we hope to cut emissions and improve access to food, water and energy, we need to address climate change and development together

The relationship between excessive carbon dioxide emissions and severe climate change impacts is well documented: In the past few years alone, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 reached its highest level in 2 million years. At the same time, we witnessed the hottest global temperatures ever recorded, rapidly shrinking ice sheets, and an onslaught of powerful storms, floods, draughts, and famines.

But if we hope to cut emissions and improve access to food, water, energy, and other necessities around the world, governments must recognize a different kind of connection: the one between climate change and sustainable development.

So we are pleased that tomorrow, for the first time ever, the United Nations will hold a high-level conference to discuss this climate change and sustainable development nexus. The time is ripe for such a conversation because governments are now working to implement the U.N.’s Paris agreement on climate change and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The crosscutting nature of these efforts is perhaps most evident in the energy sector: Economies need electricity to grow, but when it is generated from burning fossil fuels, the resulting emissions serve to worsen the crisis. For this reason, it has been said that we cannot tackle climate change without sustainable development and cannot achieve sustainable development if we do not tackle climate change.

During negotiations for the aforementioned agreements, parties were careful to ensure that they weren’t working at cross-purposes. The Paris Agreement explicitly mentions that limiting emissions has to be accomplished in light of the need for many countries to develop their economies and eradicate poverty. Similarly, the SDGs recognise the threat climate change poses to reaching those objectives.

At the international level, we must continue to ensure cooperation as we mobilise the resources necessary for implementation and work to achieve both sets of goals.

Just as importantly, the governments responsible for deploying climate and development projects on the ground must open lines of communication between bodies that in the past may have operated in distinct bureaucratic silos.

For example, finance ministers need to collaborate with energy ministries and both need to work with local governments to maintain cohesion between emissions reduction plans and sustainable development goals.

But such efforts must also go beyond the energy sector. Many countries, especially small island states like ours, need to climate-proof infrastructure projects against rising seas, erosion, and worsening storms. Last year in Fiji, for example, Cyclone Winston, one of the strongest tropical storms ever to make landfall, erased a staggering 10 percent of the country’s GDP—the equivalent of 15 Hurricane Katrinas simultaneously hitting the United States.

The same is true for countries that depend on agriculture and marine resources for food and income. On land, shifting weather patterns are expected to dramatically decrease food productivity globally and experts say climate change has already contributed to deadly famines like the one now unfolding in East Africa.

And warming ocean temperatures have caused fish stocks to migrate toward cooler waters—putting them out of reach for some communities who have depended on the harvests for generations. In the Maldives, abnormally warm ocean temperatures led to back-to-back coral bleaching episodes, threatening an essential aspect of our economy.

These challenges are enormous, but global trends are moving in the right direction. In 2015, international renewable energy investment was at an all-time high at around $350 billion. China recently said it alone would spend over $360 billion through 2020 on wind and solar and just last month, a single Indian utility company announced plans to invest $1.9 billion in renewables just for one of its states.

At the same time, governments around the world—from coastal communities in Florida, to small island countries in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Indian Ocean, to major cities around the world—have incorporated climate planning in their long-term development visions.

But the public sector can’t do it alone. New partnerships between the private sector, banks, non-government organisations, philanthropies, and other institutions are needed mobilise the necessary resources before it’s too late. Only by working together will we be able to meet the dual climate change and sustainable development challenge.

 Thoriq Ibrahim is energy and environment minister for the Maldives and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States

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