SDG Thirteen: A Pound of Cure, Sure, But Where’s the Ounce of Prevention?

April 03, 2015

Expanding economic prosperity while avoiding dangerous climate change is perhaps the defining challenge of the 21st century.  So I’m glad to see that the draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a goal for climate.  But I’m puzzled by a pretty fundamental omission. While the draft SDGs list targets for adapting to climate change, and educating people about climate change, and even mobilizing serious money in response to climate change, there’s not actually a target for, ahem, preventing climate change.

Of course it makes sense to prepare for more deadly storms, heatwaves, droughts, and floods. These consequences of climate change are awful for the rich and catastrophic for the poor.  But it makes even more sense to prevent these catastrophes in the first place.  Avoiding foreseeable dangers is so logical that there’s practically a whole wing of the folksy proverb library devoted to it:  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A stitch in time saves nine. Don’t wait to close the barn door until after the horse has fled.

The best way to track how dangerous humans’ interference with the climate has become is with a global temperature target.  Holding to a temperature target ensures we don’t crank up our global thermostat beyond the boundaries within which human civilization has historically grown and flourished.  Governments at the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 collectively agreed to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and if the SDGs should contain any climate target, it’s this one.

It may be that the reason the SDG drafters have excluded a temperature target has something to do with the asterisk they’ve written into the climate goal (“acknowledging that the UNFCCC is the primary forum for negotiating the global response to climate change”).  But the draft SDGs include targets on climate finance and climate adaptation, which are also being negotiated under the UNFCCC, so I see no reason not to also include a target on climate mitigation. 

A good place to start would be to adapt the already-agreed language on temperature from the 2009 Copenhagen Accord into the SDG’s “by 2030” format:

13.4 By 2030, set emissions of greenhouse gases on a downward trajectory consistent with holding the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.

Will holding the global temperature increase below 2°C be challenging? Of course. But each passing week brings glimmers of hope, such as global CO2 emissions stalling while the world economy expanded by 3%, and Beijing shuttering its coal plants to cut pollution.  Holding the global temperature increase below 2°C can be made far easier, quicker, and cheaper by halting and reversing deforestation.  That’s the subject of the SDG’s Goal 15, which my colleague Frances Seymour will be blogging about.


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