Governments must seek win-win synergies by tackling climate and sustainable development crises together, urges expert group report

A groundbreaking report by a group of independent experts released yesterday, 13 September 2023, by the United Nations outlines steps governments should take to maximise the impact of policies and actions by tackling the climate and sustainable development crises at the same time, creating synergies.

The expert group, with fourteen diverse members co-led by Luis Gomez-Echeverri, Emeritus Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and Heide Hackmann, Director of Future Africa, University of Pretoria, was co-convened earlier this year by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) and the UN Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) to produce this report, the first of its kind.

"Maximizing synergies between climate action and the SDGs has never been more critical," said Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs. "We must get the SDGs on track and keep the goal of 1.5 degrees alive,” he said, also stressing that an integrated approach that seeks to strengthen synergies between these two global agendas is critical to that end."

"Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and stabilizing our climate to build resilient societies are two sides of the same endeavour," said Simon Stiell, UNFCCC Executive Secretary. "I am confident that the work of the Expert Group will spur additional efforts that can result in win-win outcomes for both climate action and the SDG agenda and transition us towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world."

The report preface also cites UN Secretary-General António Guterres' rallying cry that “climate action is the 21st century's greatest opportunity to drive forward all the Sustainable Development Goals."

Building the evidence base

Evidence indicates strong synergies between addressing climate change and achieving the SDGs, the report states, whereby advancements in one can lead to improvements in the other. Therefore, pursuing the 2030 Agenda and implementation of the Paris Agreement in concert can significantly advance both agendas. Co-benefits of climate actions often directly achieve the SDG goals, and evidence suggests that co-benefits outweigh trade-offs in most cases.

Among the examples cited, achieving universal electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 (SDG 7) would require an annual investment of USD 27 billion under existing climate policies, but would require an additional USD 6 billion without climate policies. Stringent air pollution control and GHG mitigation measures would help bring 40% of the global population exposed to unhealthy particulate matter levels below the WHO air quality guideline, with the largest improvements realized for India, China and the Middle East.

According to the report, the factors blocking more synergistic actions revolve around knowledge gaps, political and institutional arrangements, and economic disruptions. In particular, the main barriers include lack of funding to analyse and finance more integrated policy actions; institutional rigidity that puts climate and development policy in separate silos; the dominance of top-down policy making; a general lack of data and indicators, and a lack of understanding about the value of synergies and the capacity to identify and implement them.

Differences across countries

North and South. Synergies are highly dependent on national priorities and context, the report finds. In the Global South, GHG emission reduction goals are primarily focused on regulating land use, which also advances several SDGs. in the Global North, synergies often emerge from the region’s pathway to a clean energy transition. The interlinkages between SDG and climate action are more pronounced for low-income and lower-middle-income countries, the report states, as SDG progress and financing gaps are far more pressing for many of these countries than reducing the impacts of climate change.

Evidence indicates strong synergies between addressing climate change and achieving the SDGs, the report states, whereby advancements in one can lead to improvements in the other.

Co-leads of the UN Expert Group that produced the report. Dr Heide Hackmann, Director of Future Africa, University of Pretoria (centre)

Cities. The report also notes that, with some 56% of the global population living in cities, expected to rise to 70% by 2050, the drive for sustainable cities (SDG 11) presents a major challenge and opportunity to advance climate action at the city level, especially in the Global South. There are many examples of cities around the world where these synergies have brought significant benefits in sustainable transport, sustainable use of urban space, lower greenhouse gases, less air pollution and improved health.

Finance. The large investment gap in climate and development action, and insufficient finance to enhance the synergies needed, are rooted in the deep failure of the global financial architecture and finance fragmentation that makes policy coherence difficult, the report finds. Current efforts to address these failures at the international level should include measures that encourage multilateral development banks and international financial institutions to introduce instruments that enhance climate and development synergies.

Next steps

This report is the first edition that will be expanded with deeper analysis, more data, and more developed recommendations in time for the major UN summits in 2024, particularly the Summit of the Future. The dialogue and engagement that has been building, including through the Fourth Global Conference on Climate and SDG Synergies in July 2023, will continue to be expanded through the upcoming UNFCCC Regional Climate Weeks and other avenues, and a fifth global conference is being planned in 2024.

Read the full report here.

A recording of the report launch event is also available for viewing here