The Paris Agreement seen through a sustainability lens

Jan Minx and Christoph von Stechow urge leaders to tackle climate and sustainability goals.

The Paris agreement on climate change has been heralded as a great diplomatic success by policymakers and environmentalists alike. Today, world leaders are meeting in New York for the signing ceremony, kicking off a year-long ratification process. This is a welcome reminder that they need to finally put some muscle behind their promises.

Viewed from a distance, the agreement has left the world with little more than a new institutional setup and some hollow commitments to cap the global temperature rise at “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. Environmentalists claim that far too little climate action is gaining traction on the ground. Unless policymakers substantially scale up their ambition to reduce emissions now, the world not only risks falling dangerously short of the climate goals by the end of this century, but this inertia will also undermine efforts to achieve other, shorter-term sustainable development goals.

In view of the 2 C limit, the unbroken global greenhouse gas emissions trend is a worrying symptom of this inertia. Only a limited carbon budget of about 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide this century offers a decent chance of staying below 2 C. Each additional ton emitted now increases the challenge to reducing the human influence on climate change later in the century.

In fact, we have already used up 20 percent of this budget since 2011, and another 4 percent is currently consumed every year. Shifting to a cleaner energy system sooner rather than later would avoid locking in carbon-intensive infrastructure now and would reduce the need for technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in the future — using carbon-containing plants to produce energy while capturing the released CO2 for underground storage, for example. Failing to scale up short-term ambition or excluding key technologies from the climate protection portfolio makes it much costlier to cap the temperature rise at 2 C and may even put us at risk of overshooting the limit.

A Sustainability Lense on the Paris Agreement

Looking at climate policy through a sustainability lens brings into focus how climate action today can affect other goals, like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Each pathway for shifting to a cleaner energy system requires different technologies. These technologies carry different risks on their own, depending on local conditions and how quickly and to what extent they are put to use. For example, shifting our current energy system to one that relies more on non-fossil technologies would reduce some important sustainability risks, like relieving local air pollution and related health and environmental risks, plus easing oil insecurity and ocean acidification. This creates a two-for-one effect that justifies the short-term costs of mitigating climate change: short-term benefits that help achieve the SDGs and long-term benefits in avoiding climate impacts.

At the same time, quickly scaling up some technologies can also bear risks to other sustainability goals. For example, some pathways to 2 C would require six times more bioenergy than is demanded today — with an additional increase in the second half of the century. It is highly debatable if this could be done without putting food and water security at risk for a rising global population and endangering livelihoods and biodiversity. The world’s poorest would bear the brunt.

Although these risks cannot be compared to the severe, widespread and potentially irreversible impact of unabated climate change, they should be taken into account when choosing socially acceptable pathways to curbing climate change. Such complex synergies and trade-offs of mitigation choices and other SDGs were investigated in our recent study published in Environmental Research Letters.

For example, if carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is rejected as an option, the risks to other sustainable energy objectives will rise and may turn out to be much more problematic than the risks associated with the technology itself. While the latter are largely known and manageable, rejecting CCS would make the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy much more urgent in pursuit of the 2 C goal and substantially increase costs. Our reliance on bioenergy and nuclear power would also grow substantially — with all the attached risks. Even the 2 C goal would be at risk, with little leeway for unexpected political or technological setbacks. This is particularly true for delaying ambitious climate policy which would already — on its own — make it more challenging to achieve many SDGs.

At the same time, reining in the growth of global energy demand through efficiency gains and less materialistic lifestyles would help reap synergies and keep trade-offs manageable. Each unit of energy saved reduces the pressure on energy systems and their sustainability. Right now, energy efficiency is growing by about 1.3 percent per year. If we up the game to just below 2 percent, we could decrease our reliance on contested technologies like CCS and new nuclear capacity by roughly one-third. This would even soften short-term economic impacts and diminish threats to food security.

As they gather in New York, world leaders need more than just a reminder of their Paris promises. They also need to think back to when they adopted the SDGs. Climate and sustainability policies cannot be separated from each other any longer. Climate policy not only needs to protect the climate, but must also take the larger sustainability picture into account. Bridling global energy demand growth and raising short-term ambition beyond the carbon-cutting contributions each country pledged in Paris not only improves the chances of staying below 2 C, but also the prospect of reaching other SDGs. The “high ambition coalition” that laid the foundation for the Paris agreement needs to take the lead again and breathe real life into the Paris promises — to safeguard both our climate and sustainable development goals.

Jan Minx and Christoph von Stechow first published this article in the Huffington Post on 22 April 2016. Christoph von Stechow is Doctoral Researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.