Are COP26 net-zero emission pledges on a collision course with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals?

Posted on Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Author: Seidou Ousmane, P. Eng., Ph.D, Professor & Director of the Hydraulics Lab at the Department of Civil Engineering

Power plant with coal pollution clouds in sunset

More than 30,000 delegates from 120 countries are attending the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, with the ambitious objective of "Uniting the world to tackle climate change".

As the first week of the COP26 draws to a close, I can’t help but wonder how the COP26 net-zero emission pledges align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forward by the UN during 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (also known as Rio+20) and adopted in 2015.

Man posing for camera (headshot)

Dr. Seidou has won awards for his excellent research on water resources management and adaptation to climate change.

The impacts of climate change are well documented. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report warning that beyond 1.5 degrees of warming above preindustrial levels, an irreversible change in the climate system may happen, leading an intensification of droughts, floods, heat waves, and other climate related disasters.

The COP26 is seen as the last opportunity to avoid that dramatic scenario. So far, ambitious commitments have been made. More than 100 countries, including Canada, have pledged to end deforestation by 2030; more than 40 countries agreed to phase out coal from their industries. In each of the international agreements attempted, there were certain key actors who refused to join altogether.

It’s easy to dismiss the resistance of these countries as the result of capitalism and selfishness, but the truth is that there is little visibility on the implications of these well-intended measures on the social, economic, or even the environmental sectors. For example, the green economy will create new jobs, but probably more in the developed world than in the developing countries of the Global South. At the same time, hikes in energy prices can compromise food security, access to water and health for the poorest. How will a struggling Nigerian child afford food and medication in a decarbonated economy?

What is at stake here is the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the most vulnerable countries. These SDGs are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. At the heart of the SDGs is the recognition that "action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability”. These goals emphasize a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all.

This is in no way a pledge against the achievement of net-zero emission – we are already seeing the impacts of climate change and do not want to experience the more severe warming scenario. This is simply a warning that social and economic turbulence will arise in the transition to net-zero emissions, which may lead some actors to reverse course on the agreed targets. It’s important to think forward and put mechanisms in place to anticipate and adapt to this turbulence.

Decarbonization is profitable only on a longer-term horizon in a world characterized by short-termism. As such, there may be (ironically) a need for funding to help adapt to a decarbonated economy and maintain the current achievements towards the SDGs, similar to the well-recognized funding that already exists to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

In conclusion, yes, we need to move to a decarbonate the economy rapidly. However, given that we live in a complex world where all sectors (food, water, energy, environment, security) are inextricably linked, we should expect the transition will be difficult, at least for part of the humanity. In the short term, some countries will see a regression in their SDG indicators and some of the governments who made pledges in Glasgow may not survive the next election. Recognizing these potential difficulties and displaying a strong willingness to address them will lead to better global commitments.

Back to top