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Tackling climate change as a single SDG could backfire


Image credit: Christian Als / Panos

The best way to deal with climate change is by integrating it into other development goals, says Ilan Kelman.
Climate change is a major challenge — and it sits among many other major challenges targeted by the post-2015 development goals.Biodiversity, health, education, energy and others influence and are influenced by climate change. So goals about them will also mean action on climate change.

Development goals that focus on the root causes of sustainability challenges bring people together; they also minimise the risk that goals will interfere with each other. But highlighting a single environmental driving factor such as climate change can be counter-productive.

Climate change action is usually separated into two categories, despite continual calls for merging them. The first is mitigation, which refers to reducing emissions and increasing the removal of greenhouse gases. The second is adaptation, which means reducing climate changes adverse impacts and exploiting its positive impacts.Several of the currently proposed Sustainable Development Goals, outside of Goal 13 on climate change, already address both mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation connections
By design, mitigation is addressed through Goals 7 on energy, 12 and 14 on resources, and 15 on land use, among others. Achieving sustainable resource management and preventing pollution necessarily means reducing fossil fuel dependency while increasing energy efficiency. And a goal to reduce all pollution, by definition, tackles greenhouse gases.Within pollution-prevention goals (such as 6 and 14), quantitative targets could be developed for a long list of specific emissions, including those associated with climate change. Having a goal that selects only one, such as carbon dioxide or carbon dioxide equivalent, excludes many persistent organic pollutants and smog contributors.Similarly, growing and protecting trees is important for mitigation. Butconsidering all ecosystems together — as done by the goals on water, resources and land use — is more effective because it gives people sustainable livelihoods based on using natural resources without harming ecosystems. That addresses the root causes of sustainability problems and must necessarily achieve mitigation without excluding people or sacrificing other ecosystems for forests.
Adaptation predates climate concern
Adaptation involves actions such as managing waterways to avoid extreme floods and droughts, protecting built heritage sites against freezethaw cycles and helping people who cannot afford temperature control inside their homes to survive hot and cold spells. Such actions are needed irrespective of climate change.

“If development goals aim for adaptation only, without aiming for disaster risk reduction across all hazards, then resilience cannot be achieved.”

IIan Kelman 

And such actions were indeed being implemented — as part of disaster risk reduction for all hazards — long before climate change became a major concern. If goals seek reduced disaster risk across all hazards, including climate-related ones, then adaptation is incorporated by definition.

For instance, rather than proposed Goal 13.1 being to strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate induced hazards and natural disasters in all countries, it could say strengthen disaster risk reduction in all countries. If development goals aim for adaptation only, without aiming for disaster risk reduction across all hazards, then resilience cannot be achieved.

What does this mean in practical terms? Hospitals ought to be built outside floodplains that are likely to expand due to climate change. But they could still collapse in the next earthquake — so they should be multi-hazard resilient, not just adapted to climate change. That requires goals encompassing, but extending beyond, adaptation.

Failing in Haiti

Are these concerns visible in reality? In a forthcoming paper, GodfreyBaldacchino and I use Haiti as an example of a climate change focus nationally and internationally failing to address underlying sustainability concerns. [1]

Before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti had prepared a National Adaptation Programme of Action for the UN and created a climate change division within the Ministry of the Environment. We can never know whether this focus on climate change distracted from preparedness for other hazards such as earthquakes.

But we do know that Haitis underdevelopment, and the exploitation of its people and natural resources by external powers, led to systemic, engrained disaster risk — including from climate-related hazards and hazard drivers. Poor governance, poverty, inequity and lack of livelihood choices contributed to that risk. We also know that solving chronic political problems of resource sharing, power relations and corruption could support disaster risk reduction, including adaptation.

How does this happen? When people have the power and resources to collaborate within their community, become involved in political and decision-making processes, and make their own life and livelihood choices, they often start calling for and implementing disaster risk reduction measures. Haiti has never been given that chance.

Conversely, mitigation and adaptation can contribute to development and sustainability, but never give the complete picture. They do not have to address the full range of drivers that fuel poverty, such as power relations and inequity. It would be just as counterproductive to aim to make Haiti entirely earthquake-resistant without considering climate change.

Integration not isolation

We could write development goals for every hazard and hazard driver. But that detracts from goals supporting sustainability irrespective of any hazard or hazard driver.

Isolating climate change, making it a field unto itself with goals unto itself, can backfire by neglecting wider sustainability topics.

Placing climate change within the wider contexts of disaster, development and sustainability will tackle both adaptation and mitigation, but not at the expense of other concerns. No sector should neglect climate change and no sector should be dominated by climate change.

Ilan Kelman is a reader in risk, resilience and global health at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and the Institute for Global Health, University College London, United Kingdom. He can be contacted via and @IlanKelman


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