The Paris Climate Agreement Feels Historic, but the Sustainable Development Goals Don’t. Why?

December 18, 2015

There were two major gatherings of global leaders this year – in New York for the UN General Assembly and in Paris for the climate talks.  In some ways, the agreements that came out of both meetings look similar.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a bunch of aspirational targets for national and global progress without any legal authority, some of which look simply implausible without truly revolutionary global policy change of which there is little sign to date.  Paris shares some of those features (1.5 degrees, anyone?). But the climate change agreement feels truly historic in a way that the Sustainable Development Goals don’t (yet). 

Here are some reasons why:

  • Unlike much of the SDG agenda, climate really is a global public good. Just getting countries to the point of saying ‘we all share responsibility and need to do something’ is a far bigger step than saying 'we all dislike illiteracy.'  Global agreement is simply more important in an area where a lot of countries need to act together to make a difference. (That said, there are some parts of the Paris agreement that are fair to compare to the SDGs: When it comes to adaptation, there are grand visions and promises of money, but in the end seawalls and crop insurance are local public or private goods.  International assistance may be needed and just, but multilateral cooperation isn’t necessary).
  • The Paris agreement was not a pony giveaway with something for everyone.  Hard negotiations resulted in some serious winnowing of every line. Unlike the SDGs, the Paris agreement isn’t loaded with appendages about monitoring sustainable tourism that are in there just because someone put them there and nobody else cared enough to take them out.  There are a few lines that are only in the Paris Agreement because one country really wanted them (Bolivia insisted upon a reference to Mother Earth, for example), but their inclusion didn't come easy.
  • The national targets came first and were substantive.  They really have some level of national buy-in.  And the Paris agreement actually sets out a plan to collectively achieve its global target in a bottom-up way, in the form of progress checks and strengthened pledges every five years.  (This is in fact a legally binding part of the agreement: countries shall repledge every 5 years rather than the weaker should.)  Meanwhile the General Assembly resolution adopting the SDGs says ”We encourage all Member States to develop as soon as practicable ambitious national responses to the overall implementation of this Agenda.”  Not quite the same.
  • There is serious discussion of mechanisms and tools to turn the ambition into actionpayments for forests, support for renewables R&D, trading the right to pollute. That was comparatively absent with the SDGs, where the tools to ensure schooling actually delivered learning, or hospitals deliver health, were barely discussed.
  • And there was money. There was real, if insufficient, commitment to actual financial flows at Paris. Countries committed to a floor of $100 billion a year by 2020, including doubling renewables R&D expenditures, more for developing country mitigation and adaptation, and tradeable emissions. All of this suggests a greater level of seriousness on climate than on the SDGs, where the Addis Financing Conference linked to the SDGs promised pretty much no new money at all. And whereas the globally fungible nature of carbon dioxide lends itself well to potentially sizeable global market mechanisms, you simply can't trade illiteracy permits.

Finally, one way to see that the Paris agreement really matters is to look at the two decades that came before: the fact that so many countries tried and failed to reach agreement again and again, COP after COP. Can you imagine countries walking away from the SDGs in rancor, twenty years in a row, because they were infuriated about something or other to do with literacy, then coming back again the year after because they knew a deal had to be done?


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.