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Kate Zerrenner headshot

The SDGs: What Does It Look Like to Make Progress on Climate Action?

By Kate Zerrenner

Photo: Protesters urging bolder climate action during Climate Week in New York City in September 2019. One of the UNs SDGs in particular focuses on climate action and resilience planning.

The Biden administration has been vocal about prioritizing climate action throughout the executive branch, including appointing the first ever Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, who has mostly recently been in talks with European leaders about climate action. The timing couldn’t be more urgent.

Recent analysis shows that the U.S. will need to cut carbon emissions by at least 57 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 to meet the Biden administration’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. In 2016, when the U.S. signed the Paris Climate Agreement, the target was 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025, but those efforts were reversed under the Trump administration. In April 2021, nations will announce new 2030 goals for the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. rejoined in January.

Further setbacks have been noted in the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, a series of 17 goals set by the United National General Assembly in 2015 for the world to achieve by 2030. From eradicating poverty and hunger to tackling the climate crisis, the SDGs attempt to address the most fundamental challenges faced by society. In a recent GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey of 700 experts from business, government, NGOs and academics from 71 countries, 94 percent of respondents listed climate change as the most urgent societal challenge. Unfortunately, in a follow up survey, 61 percent of respondents felt like progress on the climate action (SDG 13) has been poor.

All of these targets are goals that feel lofty and overwhelming. What does it actually mean to make progress on SDGs and climate action?

Climate action as part of the SDGs

The 13th SDG, focused on climate action, sounds straightforward enough: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. But to be measurable - and therefore successful - there must be smaller steps leading up to that. Within each SDG are targets. For climate action, they include: strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related disasters; the integration of climate change measures into policy and planning; building knowledge and capacity to meet climate change; implement the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and work on promoting mechanisms to raise capacity for such planning and management.

These are all still high-level, and they are meant to be. Every country will need to figure out its pathway to meeting the goal in the way that makes the most sense to its government and economy. Judging by the amount of work that still needs to be done in the U.S. to meet climate targets (which can feed into the SDGs), it will be a heavy lift. Unfortunately, earlier climate action could have mitigated some of that, but we are now at the point where deep dives are necessary. Luckily, during the past four years, while the U.S. federal government bowed out of and discussion of climate action, the private sector kept pushing ahead, and will continue to be instrumental in getting the U.S. to the finish line.

A look at climate resilience

Take, for example, the resilience and adaptive capacity target within the climate action SDG. Reaching that target will require national disaster risk management plans and local disaster risk management. A national disaster risk management plan will ideally be a policy that addresses all stages of disaster risk management using a multi-sectoral approach that should include the public and private sector stakeholders engaged in policies and practices related to education, health, law enforcement, finance, trade, tourism, agriculture, transportation, energy and water.

Some industries have already been proactive about including plans to address climate risk into their portfolios. The reinsurance industry, for example, which insures the insurers, has for years pushed for better accounting for climate risk. With a high degree of risk, especially in areas such as coastal and riparian communities across the U.S., reinsurers have been vocal about the fact that not considering climate change will lead to an untenable situation with mortgages, home insurance, and pensions, and could spell disaster for the insurance industry as a whole. With $15 trillion of assets at risk from coastal flooding alone, the industry cannot afford to underestimate the risk.

With a reenergized federal government keeping its eye on the ball, aiming to engage every executive agency in the climate battle, it is clear that regulations, expectations, and targets must be set so that the private sector can be a successful and powerful team player. The only way to meet the Paris Agreement goals and the SDGs is by making it a national commitment. No one gets to sit this game out.

Image credit: Katie Rodriguez/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner