Climate change is disrupting our critical progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Figure: Sustainable Development Goals overview, from the United Nations Development Programme website.

According to a paper by Gerald Singh and others, the far-reaching, multifaceted effects of climate change are slowing our critical progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (“Global Goals”) – a set of 17 internationally agreed upon goals to build “the future we want”. These guide a strategic plan for the United Nations Development Programme focusing on key areas including poverty alleviation, democratic governance and peacebuilding, climate change and disaster risk, and economic inequality.

While exploring the impacts of climate change on the delivery of the SDGs, a team of ocean and global change researchers, led by Gerald Singh at the University of British Columbia (now at Memorial University), noticed emerging patterns of complex and often perplexing pathways leading to the disruption of marine ecosystem services that render benefits to people and support our ability to achieve our Global Goals. Ecosystem services are broadly categorized as: Provisioning (e.g., fish production), Regulating (e.g., local climates), Habitat and Supporting Services (e.g., erosion prevention), and Cultural Services (e.g., marine recreation activities). Disruption of these services can result in perceived negative or positive effects on a given community, for example, ocean temperature changes are causing some coastal areas to produce more fish and others to produce less. Singh and co-authors sought to capture a global picture of climate change impacts on ocean ecosystem services and to answer the question: how is our changing world affecting our progress toward reaching the Global Goals by the target years (2020-2030, depending on the goal).

In their study published in People and Nature, the team engaged experts and conducted a thorough literature review on the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystem services. They first determined how climate change may affect the ocean, then linked ocean change to human well-being as defined by the Global Goals. They found evidence of many ways that climate change is affecting oceans, directly and indirectly such as through increasing runoff rates and land-based pollution. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that climate change will impact the environment, but less obvious were their findings of climate change impacts inhibiting our ability to reduce poverty, end hunger, improve health, reduce gender inequality, ensure inclusive and sustainable economic growth, promote peace, and establish effective institutions. The study describes overwhelmingly negative consequences from climate change effects on our ability to achieve the Global Goals. There may, however, be a strategic way forward to address the Global Goals.

The study found that the least affected goals were “developing affordable clean energy systems” (Goal 7) and “changing global consumption and production patterns” (Goal 12), two goals that are also key ways of mitigating climate change and helping to achieve the other Global Goals. Policy-makers might therefore want to consider aiming for these two goals as a relatively more straight-forward and effective path to achieving the other goals. There is a National SDG Conference in Bergen at the beginning of 2020, and Singh and his team suggest that these two goals be prioritized by governments as ways to act against climate change and towards sustainable development in the face of climate change.