A Missed Opportunity for Change?

  • 2015•09•21

    Natasha Kuruppu and Jamal Hisham Hashim

    The Global Goals

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

    The inclusion of Goal #13 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is encouraging and warranted, given that the impacts of climate change are inextricably linked to sustainable development in general. Their interdependencies will shape the extent to which the remaining 16 SDGs will be operationalised.

    Certainly, climate change has the potential to hinder the realisation of many other SDGs. Goal #13 and its associated targets are linked to the UNFCCC and, thus, are quite general and high level —one target, for example, seems to have a strong focus at the national level. Yet many of the impacts of climate change will be felt at the local level, and disproportionately felt by local actors and communities living on the margins. Moreover, many developing countries and small islands that have contributed the least to global emissions are already experiencing its impacts, such as extreme events (droughts or floods) or sea-level rise and inundation in low-lying atoll nations. 

    In addressing these impacts, many developing countries — particularly the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) — are currently well on their way to taking various adaptation actions, either through UNFCCC mechanisms such as the National Adaptation Programmes of Action or via regional initiatives such as the Strategy for Climate and Disaster Resilient Development in the Pacific. These adaptation actions aim to address the strategies outlined in SDG #13 (other than the target specifically addressing the role of developed country nations).

    Some of the targets of Goal #13 (such as integrating climate change measures into national planning, and improving education and awareness) seem to have a good chance of being achieved by 2030. But will this be an entirely positive development? Or does it, rather, cause us to miss the opportunity for innovation and making the radical transformative changes that existing methods of climate adaptation and disaster management planning and practice require?

    With respect to human health and well-being, a recent Lancet Commission report highlights the particular transformations required if we are to meet the challenges of climate change and sustain planetary health. Some specific examples that are promoted, and within our reach, include the need for new governance arrangements and organisations of human knowledge, as well as a redefinition of “prosperity” that focuses on enhancing the quality of life and the delivery of improved health for all while respecting the integrity of the planet’s natural systems.

    It is important to note that Goal #13 will provide a platform for developing countries to negotiate for funding and integration of new initiatives related to the targets that underpin the goal. However, the context in which existing adaptation planning, programming, and implementation occurs is uneven, not to mention stained with various power inequalities and inequities that are historically derived (e.g., the mechanisms through which adaptation funding is delivered to LDCs). 

    Success will require goals that aim to fundamentally change the deep-rooted structures and processes that govern how climate adaptation occurs so that it does reduce the vulnerability of communities and deliver outcomes that they value. But to do so will require going beyond the Goal #13 target of simply “promoting mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management”’; it will force us to question what fundamental changes are required in policies and their delivery instruments — policies that can challenge the power structures which maintain inequalities in the delivery of adaptation interventions.

    In this context, it is pertinent to question whose interests these delivery mechanisms serve, and for whom they are desirable. It may also require greater acknowledgement and integration of indigenous and local knowledge-related governance.

    Given the ethical and moral dimensions of climate change — while accounting for the interdependencies across various levels of government and organisations — it is clear that the Goal #13 targets cannot be achieved by developing countries alone. Developed countries have a key role to play in supporting adaptation initiatives in developing economies, but the proposed targets fall short of defining how developed countries need to change their own internal policies (e.g., on bilateral aid) and institutional infrastructure if they are to help developing countries mainstream adaptation into national policies.

    Certainly, the current experiences of developing countries and small island states in adaptation planning has highlighted the mismatch in policy-enabling environments between developing countries and those of donor countries and partners. Current efforts often weaken in-country capacity by focusing on their own agendas rather than on those that reflect the local, in-country realities of developing country communities.

    Overall, Goal #13 provides a platform to prioritise and integrate climate adaptation action at the national level in developing countries. Some argued, however, that the targets are weak and unlikely to make fundamental shifts in the deep-rooted structures and processes that constrain how adaptation planning and programming is undertaken.

    Nevertheless, the Goal #13 targets give developing countries a baseline to negotiate and mainstream fundamental transformative changes — those required to shore up the adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities to climate change. 


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    A Missed Opportunity for Change? by Natasha Kuruppu and Jamal Hisham Hashim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.