2: Governing the Climate Crisis: Three Challenges for SDG 13

Climate scientists have warned that, without immediate and sharp cuts to the dependence on fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 °C goal is likely to be overshot within this decade. Demands for a rapid exit from fossil fuels, particularly coal, are intensifying. A growing number of countries and regions have set net zero climate targets for mid-century and more and more countries are issuing plans to speed up the transition of their energy systems. At the same time, various actors have worked to slow climate action, and fossil fuel interests persistently delay or obstruct decarbonization efforts. This chapter summarizes the long history of international climate negotiations, presents the current status of climate programs in selected countries and sheds light on the role of recent (anti-)climate movements. It argues that the implementation of SDG 13 (‘urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’) faces three key challenges: (1) the tension between increasing urgency and a voluntary post-Paris climate governance regime; (2) the need to balance development priorities with climate change concerns; and (3) the sociopolitical struggles attached to climate action.

The 13th Sustainable Development Goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda addresses climate change, considered by many to be one of the most existential threats to humanity (UN, 2021), and described ‘as the defining issue of our time’ (UN, 2019). SDG 13 shapes not only other environmental SDGs like forest protection (see Chapter 3 on SDG 15 by Kleinschmit et al) and marine ecosystems (see Chapter 4 on SDG 14 by Vadrot); but also broader socio-economic targets such as clean energy access (see Chapter 8 on SDG 7 by Dabla and Goldthau) and sustainable production and consumption (see Chapter 11 SDG 12 by Lorek et al). SDG 13 is thereby confronted with what Partzsch (see Introduction in this volume) highlights as a critical tension in Agenda 2030: the need to balance environmental protection with other socio-economic priorities.

Attempts to govern climate change have developed over decades, long before Agenda 2030 came into being as a global sustainable development framework. Since measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began at the Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958, there has been a steady rise in their levels. In the early 2020s, they had risen to approximately 415 parts per million (ppm) (Lindsey, 2021) compared to a pre-industrial level of about 280 ppm (IPCC, 2018). Such high levels were last seen during the Pliocene era, over four million years ago (NOAA, 2021). Rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are acting like a blanket around the planet, trapping inbound solar radiation and warming the earth at unprecedented rates in the last 2,000 years (NASA, 2021). As a result, the average surface temperature on the planet has risen about 1.2 °C (2.16 °F) since pre-industrial levels.

Left unchecked, global warming has the potential to make many parts of the planet uninhabitable. It will contribute to widespread species dieback and extinction, intensify hunger, speed the spread of deadly diseases and add fire to the flames of ethnic and religious conflicts. The most vulnerable will be left struggling to survive. The massive loss of glaciers and the melting of Antarctic ice will not be reversible for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. Yet, there is still time to act to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres (2019) stated, ‘the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win’. This, however, requires ambitious and urgent collective action.

The international community began dealing with the global climate crisis in the early 1990s. In 1994 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took effect, paving the way for a global climate change regime. If the world community acts and makes deep cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the climate crisis could be the trigger to lead humanity towards developing a greener and more just world (Schlosberg and Collins, 2014; Porter et al, 2020). Combating climate change could create synergies with and reinforce all the other SDGs (Fuso Nerini et al, 2019; Venkatramanan et al, 2021). For example, shifting away from fossil fuels towards affordable and clean energy sources (SDG 7) will result in a more environmentally friendly energy supply and can support energy independence, create local jobs and trigger community empowerment and more democratic energy systems (Ram et al, 2022; Wahlund and Palm, 2022). Adopting climate-friendly approaches to urban design, changing lifestyles to become more sustainable and promoting shared mobility concepts would certainly also make cities far more liveable (Mendizabal et al, 2018).

This chapter examines why combating climate change internationally has been so cumbersome despite the many ecological, social and economic benefits that can be anticipated with early action. A myriad of forces have delayed, prevented or in some cases reversed ambitious climate action. While there are certainly technological barriers that still need to be overcome, and the immediate financial costs of climate action are considerable, arguably the real opponents of climate action have been powerful vested industries. Particularly determined efforts to slow and block policy reforms have come from fossil fuel industries and the scientists and politicians they have supported (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). This chapter focuses on three key challenges that shape not only SDG 13 specifically, but also the broader climate governance architecture more broadly. The urgent need for more ambitious climate action is confronted by various governance challenges including the voluntary focus of the international climate governance framework; the responsibility challenges that are tied to the quest to pursue ambitious climate action while simultaneously addressing development needs and social inequities; and the political challenges stemming from the issue linkages between climate change and other sociopolitical concerns. This chapter addresses these challenges as well as the movements and actors calling for climate action now.

2.1 Governance challenges: tackling climate change internationally

Any attempts to solve a complex and ‘wicked problem’ (Lazarus, 2009) such as climate change are confronted with governance challenges related to coordination, the unequal distribution of power and knowledge imbalances. These challenges have shaped the climate talks under the UNFCCC for decades. SDG 13 acknowledges the UNFCCC as the primary forum for negotiating the global response to climate change, with the Paris Agreement as the key guiding document. The climate governance framework established in Paris in 2015 rests on governments’ voluntary commitments to act. The process of arriving even at this weak consensus on the need for transformative action was slow and frustrating, an indication of just how powerful incumbent industries and fossil fuel exporting countries remain. To date, national policy plans and actions still do not add up to the level of action needed to prevent dangerous increases in global average temperatures, despite some signs that a critical juncture may have been reached as climate awareness strengthens and renewable energy rapidly expands. What follows is a brief summary of the targets under SDG 13 and their links to the international climate governance landscape.

2.1.1 Governing by goals: SDG 13

Largely referring to what was agreed upon in Paris, SDG 13 outlines an ambition to limit global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. SDG 13 consists of the following key targets:

  • 13.1 recognizes that many people and regions worldwide are already facing the devastating effects of climate change. Resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related disasters should be strengthened.

  • 13.2 calls for integrating climate change measures into broader political agendas, national policies, strategies and planning.

  • 13.3 considers education, human capacity and knowledge as prerequisites for tackling the climate crisis. Climate change education should be mainstreamed into national education policies and curricula.

  • 13.a reiterates the commitment made by developed countries to jointly mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 under the UNFCCC to address climate change mitigation in the Global South (a target that has still not been achieved as of 2022).

  • 13.b calls for mechanisms to raise the capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in the most vulnerable countries, focusing particularly on women, youth and marginalized communities.

The targets for SDG 13 are thin in scope and broadly formulated. This means that climate action has been largely defined by decisions made during the international climate negotiations.

2.1.2 The long road to Paris

Climate scientists issued some of their earliest warnings about global warming in the 1970s. The first World Climate Conference in 1979 led to the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The IPCC provides governments with regular reports on the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change (Bolin, 2007). Politically, climate change has been on the international agenda since at least the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) when the world community recognized climate change as a matter of global concern and established the UNFCCC. Based on this convention, a Conference of the Parties (COP) takes place generally once a year. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was signed as the first international agreement addressing climate change, although it came into effect only in 2005 after enough national parliaments had ratified it. The Kyoto Protocol obliged the wealthier countries of the world to reduce their combined GHG emissions by 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by the period 2008–12 (Bohringer, 2003). The protocol’s effectiveness was, however, greatly limited by the failure of the United States to ratify the agreement and by Canada’s decision to pull out of it just before it was due to expire (Schott and Schreurs, 2020). Efforts to negotiate a successor agreement dragged on for years. Hopes were high that a global agreement would be reached in Copenhagen in 2009, but delegates failed to bridge their differences.

In parallel to the negotiations under the UNFCCC, nations began discussing sustainability and development issues. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, over 100 heads of state and government committed to achieving development while protecting the environment, thereby recognizing climate change effects in sectors like water and agriculture (UN, 2002). In the subsequent formation of the sustainable development goals, developed countries were required to accept that global progress on climate change also required action on other goals, such as poverty alleviation, education and gender equality (Udapudi and Sakkarnaikar, 2015).

Shortly after the SDGs were announced in 2015, parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement called on the global community to act to reduce GHGs, as well as to prepare for and adapt to the consequences of climate change, including sea level rise and more frequent and extreme weather events. The Paris Agreement set a goal to prevent a rise in global average temperatures to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels as this was the level beyond which scientists concurred that tipping points could be reached beyond which the natural climate system could be irreversibly altered, putting humanity at great risk (Knutti et al, 2016). For small island states and low-lying countries this target was insufficient; they pressurized instead for a 1.5 °C upper temperature limit. Even this level brings with it serious risks, for example from rising sea levels. Unable to reach a consensus, the Paris Agreement calls on its signatories to hold the increase to well below 2 °C and strive to stay within 1.5 °C (UNFCCC, 2015).

2.1.3 Voluntary initiatives

Given the lack of global acceptance of an agreement with legally binding targets, at the Paris climate negotiations (COP 21) hopes were placed on a ‘hybrid multilateralism’ (Kuyper et al, 2018). It assumed that, under the prevailing political realities, progress on the climate crisis would be politically achievable only through collaborative action, voluntary commitments, win–win solutions, and the development of synergies. Political stalemate at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen (COP 15) in 2009 required negotiations to make a shift from aiming for a regulatory regime to accepting a catalytic and facilitative model. Thus, the Paris Agreement incorporated voluntary commitments of action (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) that are deposited with the UNFCCC Secretariat. The agreement further incorporates a regular review mechanism intended to pressurize states to examine the effectiveness of their measures and to assess the latest scientific findings and climate developments so that they can adjust their climate commitments and ambitions accordingly. Finally, the agreement includes non- and substate actors far more directly than previous regimes (Hale, 2016). The UNFCCC Global Climate Action Portal identifies the climate action pledges and commitments of more than 29,000 different non- and substate actors. Countries’ voluntary national reviews of their SDG efforts pay considerable attention to these kinds of climate change actions (Elder and Bartalini, 2019).

While critics question the effectiveness of a system that relies so heavily on private actors as standard setters and where accountability mechanisms remain weak (Streck, 2020), there are also positive dimensions to this ‘era of nonstate climate leadership’ (MacLean, 2020), with its polycentric and voluntary characteristics (Ostrom, 2009).

An example is the United Kingdom’s effort to pull together a club of countries to agree to phase out coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. By November 2021, more than 40 countries had joined this informal club, although critics point out that the biggest coal users are not on board and phase-out dates remain too late (Harvey et al, 2021). Students’ and citizens’ groups have spearheaded divestment campaigns, urging pension funds, governments and financial institutions to divest from fossil fuels. In response, the Norwegian Pension Fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, decided to divest from fossil fuels (Ambrose, 2019). Forbes reports that the divestment movement is a $14.5 trillion movement with over a thousand major investors (Carlin, 2021).

A growing number of countries, companies and organizations, including universities, have committed to net zero carbon targets. The UN-backed Race to Zero campaign highlights several such initiatives (UNFCCC, 2021). A growing number of countries have also adopted climate neutrality goals (Wallach, 2021), and companies have taken on the net zero challenge, including even various energy companies such as BP, Repsol and Sasol (Geck, 2021). A 2019 survey found that 13 of 132 energy companies had formulated their own net zero targets (Dietz et al, 2019). The UN, however, warns that much more needs to be done to stay within a 1.5 °C warming (IPCC, 2021).

2.1.4 Nationally Determined Contributions and the emissions gap

Several countries have notched their NDCs upwards, but the commitments that have been made are still far short of what is needed to stop the world from entering a real temperature danger zone (Climate Analytics and Next Climate Institute, 2021a). In November 2018 the United Nations issued an emissions gap report indicating that the G20 countries, the largest economies in the world whose combined emissions accounted for almost 80 per cent of global emissions, were not doing enough to rein in emissions growth, putting their 2030 pledges at risk (UNEP, 2018). The IPCC sent out a stark warning in the same year that the time frame available to stay within a 1.5 °C target was rapidly closing (IPCC, 2019). The Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis by a consortium of climate research organizations, estimated that the pledges and commitments made at the Paris COP in 2015 were leading the world in the direction of a 2.5 °C to 2.9 °C temperature increase, even if all pledges were to be fully implemented (Climate Analytics and Next Climate Institute, 2019). In 2020 at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, an increasingly concerned public put pressure on policy makers to strengthen their pledges. In November 2021 the Climate Action Tracker assessed that, even if all of the pledges countries made for 2030 are to be fulfilled, there is still a 50 per cent chance that global temperatures will be 2.4 °C higher than pre-industrial levels and a 95 per cent chance that the 1.5 °C target will be missed (Climate Analytics and Next Climate Institute, 2021b).

2.2 Responsibility challenges: unequally distributed emissions

Tackling the climate crisis hinges on questions of fairness, equity and responsibility. The world’s biggest GHG emitters are spread across the Global North and South and are responsible for more than 50 per cent of global emissions (Friedrich et al, 2020). The climate commitments made by the four largest emitters – China, the US, the EU and India – are considered briefly later. In addition, the situations in Brazil, Indonesia and Tuvalu are introduced as snapshots of the highly heterogenous group of countries that make up the Global South. For these countries, climate action competes with other development needs and priorities, raising in turn, responsibility issues for wealthier countries and those with high historical and current emissions.

2.2.1 Large emitters from the Global North: the US and the EU

Carbon emissions mainly arise from industrial production and fossil fuel consumption. Thus, countries that were the first to industrialize have historically contributed most to global warming.

Historically, the United States has emitted more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country. Today, it is the world’s second largest emitter after China but the largest emitter from a cumulative historical perspective. Depending on the administration in power, the US has either sought to lead on global climate action or to block multilateral climate agreements. While the William J. Clinton administration (Democrat) signed the Kyoto Protocol, the George W. Bush administration (Republican) rejected the Kyoto Protocol and the Donald J. Trump administration (Republican) pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement. President Barack Obama was unable to convince Congress to pass meaningful climate legislation and thus was largely limited to seeking change through executive action. These executive actions introduced by Obama were largely annulled by Trump. A sharply divided country has stood in the way of finding a consensus on climate action (Schreurs, 2019; Fiorino, 2022).

In the meantime, President Joe Biden brought the US back into the Paris Agreement in 2021. His administration also worked with Congress to pass major climate legislation. The first big success came in the form of the Infrastructure Law, which passed with bipartisan support. This law will channel funds for infrastructure projects, including public transport, rail, electric vehicle (EV) chargers, clean energy transmission and grids, and cleaning up brownfield sites and abandoned mines. There is a strong focus on ensuring environmental justice in the allocation of funding. The second, more complicated and precarious win came with the passage of a special form of budgetary legislation known as a reconciliation bill. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 does not sound like a climate bill but is actually the largest climate bill the US Congress has ever passed. It includes funding for renewable energy, batteries, forestry (for climate resilience) and electric vehicles, and sets major GHG emission reduction targets (by about a billion metric tons in 2030).

Given the federal system in the US and as a result of decades of inconsistency in federal action on climate change, subnational actors have also stepped up to the plate. States like California, Oregon, Washington and New York have succeeded in introducing important policies and measures to reduce emissions within their states (Stokes, 2020). US emissions dropped by 7.3 per cent between 1990 and 2020 (US EPA, 2022).

The European Union is often perceived as a global leader in international climate negotiations. The block of 27 countries (28 until the UK’s exit in 2020) championed the Kyoto Protocol and later the Paris Agreement after the US retreat. The EU met its goals to reduce its GHG emissions by 20 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020, and exceeded its target to achieve 20 per cent renewables in its energy mix. Targets for 2030 announced in 2014 have subsequently been tightened in response to warnings from the IPCC. The EU raised its carbon dioxide reduction ambition from 40 to 55 per cent of 1990 levels. The European Commission is promoting local climate action, for example with an initiative to realize 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030. In 2019 the EU announced the European Green Deal, which aims at climate neutrality by 2050, the development of a circular economy, major improvements in building efficiency, sharp reductions in the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture, large-scale reforestation and leadership in research and development of climate-friendly technologies (Bloomfield and Steward, 2020). The Fit for 55 package outlines steps to be taken by 2030, including raising the ambition and reach of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) to include not only major industries but also the airline and marine sectors. It also calls for updating member states’ national targets in areas not covered by the ETS (European Council, 2022).

In reaction to Russia’s illegal and devastating invasion of Ukraine, the EU has made extraordinary efforts to reduce dependency on Russian fossil fuels, speed the development of renewables and enhance energy efficiency. The war has become a catalyst for speeding up action on renewables and energy efficiency. At the same time, at least in the short term, Europe is returning to more use of coal to meet gaps in its energy supplies as a consequence of the loss of Russian fossil fuel sources. There is also fear that soaring energy prices could lead to social unrest, which has encouraged European governments to cooperate more on energy and to introduce a variety of measures to cushion consumers and small and medium industries from exploding fuel costs.

2.2.2 Heavyweights in the Global South: China and India

When emissions from land-use change and forestry are included, the Global South is estimated to contribute about 63 per cent of today’s total GHG emissions (Fuhr, 2021). These emissions are heavily concentrated. The ten biggest emitters from the Global South are responsible for around 78 per cent of the group’s emissions; the remaining 120 countries account for only 22 per cent. China and India alone are responsible for about 60 per cent of all emissions from the Global South. Emissions pathways, climate-related visions and strategies to tackle climate change differ significantly across the Global South.

China overtook the US as the world’s largest emitter in the mid-2000s. Given its population of close to 1.4 billion people and an economy that has experienced rapid economic growth since 1980, China’s position in the international climate negotiations has shifted. In the early years, it positioned itself as a developing country, arguing that the responsibility for climate change lay primarily with North America, Europe and Japan. China was not required to reduce its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, and instead became the recipient of technological assistance under the Clean Development Mechanism, a policy instrument designed to allow developed countries to obtain credits towards their own emission reductions by taking actions to reduce or prevent emissions in developing countries (Zhang and Yan, 2015). With its GHG emissions now reaching about 30 per cent of the global total, China has had to accept greater responsibility. At COP 15 in 2009, China was perceived as a blocker of a global climate agreement. Offering some hope to the global community, a decade later in September 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping announced that the country would aim to peak its emissions by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

China has taken major strides to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy, shuttering highly polluting factories, closing many small and hazardous coal mines, and investing heavily in a modernization of production systems. Between 1978 and 2018, China’s economy grew by 176 per cent and its population by 16 per cent, but its CO2 emissions increased a much smaller sixfold because of sharp declines in energy and carbon intensity (Zheng et al, 2020). China has invested heavily in renewables, accounting for 45 per cent of global investments in renewables in 2020. It has the world’s largest renewable energy generation capacity (over 900 GW at the end of 2020). In 2021, China’s renewable energy investments outpaced investments in fossil fuels under the Belt and Road Initiative for the first time. While China still dominates global investments in overseas coal power plants (REN21, 2021), the government recently banned the financing of such projects. In addition to promoting hydrogen fuels, circular economy concepts, electric vehicles, and digital technologies, the 14th Five-Year Plan envisions substantial reliance on what it calls the clean and efficient use of fossil fuels (NDRC, 2021).

India has overtaken China as the world’s most populated country and its population is expected to be over 1.6 billion by 2050 (PTI, 2019). This will put additional burdens on an economy in transition that is still struggling to supply its entire population with their basic needs. Demand for energy and resources will expand significantly in the decades ahead. Yet, average per capita CO2 emissions remain low, at an average of 1.69 tons per year in 2019, compared with a global average of 4.39 tons.

Reflecting its stage of development and its belief that developed countries should carry the weight of responsibility for addressing climate change, India initially resisted setting a substantial climate neutrality target. This changed in November 2021, when President Narendra Modi announced that India would aim to become carbon neutral by 2070 (McGrath, 2021). Further measures aim to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP by 33–35 per cent from the 2005 level and to obtain 40 per cent of cumulative installed electric power capacity from non-fossil fuel energy resources (renewables and nuclear power), both by 2030. Taking the position of many developing countries, India demands financial and technical assistance from developed countries and the Green Climate Fund, which was set up by the Paris Agreement to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate against climate change. India is eager to become a player in the production and export of clean energy technologies. However, the country also continues to build coal-fired power plants (Varadhan and Sheldrick, 2021), claiming that these are necessary to meet its rapidly growing energy demands.

2.2.3 Divergent perspectives from the Global South

The Global South accounts for the majority of countries in the world. It is an economically, politically and culturally diverse group. Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa are examples of countries that have seen substantial economic progress and positive human development over the past few decades, albeit on the back of widespread environmental degradation and increasing social inequality. Given their current and future GHG trends, the global fight against climate change very much hinges on developments in these countries. On the other side of the spectrum, small island countries with small carbon footprints such as Tuvalu, Fiji and the Maldives are struggling to adapt to climate change. Their stories raise troubling climate justice and equity concerns.

Brazil has one of the largest tracks of rainforest in the world. Yet, large areas have been deforested in response to demands for agricultural land and timber exports, as well as through corruption and illegal logging. Deforestation rates surged under the far right presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. His successor, Lula da Silva, has pledged to protect the Amazon and its peoples. In April 2022 Brazil published an updated NDC to underline its commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 37 per cent by 2025, and by 50 per cent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels), and to attain climate neutrality by 2050. The plan notes the country’s already high share of renewables, which accounted for 48.4 per cent of total energy demand, 84.8 per cent of electricity and 25 per cent of transport fuel. Brazil is a world leader in the development and consumption of biofuels in heating and transport (Martinelli et al, 2022). However, there are controversies involving the extent to which biofuel strategies contribute to social inequities, biodiversity loss and loss of arable land for agriculture. As part of its NDC, Brazil has committed to ending illegal logging by 2028.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation, with more than 270 million inhabitants. This lower middle-income country is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the eighth largest worldwide. With its per capita consumption-based CO2 emissions of 2.21 tons, excluding land-use emissions, Indonesia’s contributions to global warming might be viewed as moderate (World Bank, 2022). However, Indonesia is actually one of the world’s largest emitters of GHGs, mainly as a result of the high level of emissions stemming from land use, land-use change and the energy sector, which together are responsible for 80 per cent of the country’s emissions. Indonesia originally agreed to reduce emissions by 26 per cent (unconditionally) compared to a 2030 business as usual (BAU) scenario and by up to 41 per cent below the 2030 BAU level, depending on international assistance for finance, technology transfer and capacity building (Wijaya et al, 2017). Decarbonization of its economy was to follow a phased approach involving improvements to land-use policies, energy conservation and renewable energy development (Dunne, 2019). Activists rejected the government’s plans as not ambitious enough, and criticized the government for planning to categorize coal gasification, brown hydrogen (developed from fossil fuels) and nuclear energy as ‘renewable energy’ (Jong, 2021). They pointed out that emissions ‘might even double by 2030’ compared to 2014 levels if more ambitious actions were not taken (Climate Analytics and Next Climate Institute, 2022). The Indonesian government has in the meantime committed to doing more. In July 2021 it submitted an updated NDC with a 29 per cent unconditional emission reduction target for 2030 and a net zero emissions target for 2060 or sooner (compared to earlier discussions of a 2070 date).

South Africa is Africa’s largest economy. Situated in a drought belt, the country regularly experiences severe water shortages. In 2019 Cape Town almost ran out of water (Heggie, 2021). After decades of apartheid, major income inequalities still plague the country, with over half the population living in poverty and a quarter experiencing food poverty. Poor communities are particularly hard hit by climate change. South Africa’s national climate adaptation strategy notes that climate change threatens its ability to meet the SDGs (DEFF (Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries), South Africa, 2020). It also points out that women experience climate change challenges differently from men. At COP26, South Africa called for developed countries to honour their pledges to provide developing countries with financial and technical support for climate adaptation (Creecy, 2021).

Finally, Tuvalu and the other 43 UN member states in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) contribute only marginally to global GHG emissions but are most seriously threatened by climate change. For Tuvalu, a small island nation in the Pacific with fewer than 12,000 inhabitants, sea level rise and extreme storms will almost certainly mean that its citizens will need to find a new home. AOSIS played a critical role in the Paris climate negotiations in demanding the inclusion of a 1.5 °C target, characterizing this as an existential issue for them (Ourbak and Magnan, 2018). While some areas may be able to get by with climate adaptation strategies, others will suffer an irreversible loss of territory.

2.3 Political challenges: climate change deniers versus climate activists

Climate change touches all sectors of society. There are countless interests and a plethora of different views about how best to address it. Two antagonistic poles are presented here. One is populated by climate change deniers and sceptics who are backed by powerful and wealthy industries and philanthropists. The other is represented by climate movements and their members, many of whom are young and worried about what the future might hold. Climate change is thus a highly politicized field.

2.3.1 Climate change deniers and sceptics

Climate action has been slowed by climate change deniers and sceptics, who question either the extent to which humans are contributing to global warming or whether global warming is happening at all. They found powerful supporters in the likes of former US Senator James Inhofe, former US President Donald Trump and former Czech President Vaclav Klaus. Many prominent climate deniers have either headed up conservative think tanks (the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute) or had their research financed by fossil fuel companies. The movie Before the Flood (2016) describes these linkages and raises awareness of the financing behind many climate change deniers (see also Thornton 2023). While climate change denialism is not equally strong in all parts of the world, various far right movements have taken up these arguments. Germany’s far right party, Alternative für Deutschland, has for example, questioned the wisdom of the German energy transition and has campaigned against renewable energy projects. Others, such as France’s Rassemblement National and Spain’s Vox (Onishi, 2019; de Nadal, 2021; Serhan, 2021), reject the need for international solutions. In the wake of the Russian war on Ukraine, there is growing evidence that numerous European far right movements have received funding from the Kremlin (Datta, 2022).

2.3.2 New climate movements

In sharp contrast to the climate deniers, youth climate action is on the rise and has led to new climate movements such as Fridays for Future (FFF) and Extinction Rebellion (XR). These movements have used a broad spectrum of strategies from press conferences to street protests, to more radical civil disobedience, to demand more ambitious climate action. They combine vocal public protest with dedicated policy work, agenda setting and lobbying (Sovacool and Dunlap, 2022). Slowly, the balance on climate action appears to be tipping in their favour, although not with the speed or intensity they rightfully demand.

Greta Thunberg initiated a worldwide movement in August 2018 when she announced the first Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate). Her efforts gained unprecedented social media attention, helping to launch the global Fridays for Future movement. With support from climate scientists, the movement regards itself as bipartisan and politically neutral. It demands radical and immediate climate action that acknowledges and meaningfully responds to the mounting evidence of climate change (Marquardt, 2020). Mass protests around the world were severely disrupted during the pandemic, but the movement continued to lobby for climate action through various online formats. During COP26 in Glasgow, Thunberg criticized the official UNFCCC negotiations as ‘blah, blah, blah’ and joined an alternative summit instead.

The Sunshine Movement, which was launched in 2017 in the US, has similarly organized a wide range of protests and carried out policy work. During the 2018 US midterm elections, the group attacked candidates with ties to the fossil fuel industry and supported candidates who were in favour of renewables, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who promoted a Green New Deal bill. Movement protesters gathered noisily near politicians’ residences to wake them up. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United Kingdom Extinction Rebellion emerged from a network of environmental initiatives ‘to spark and sustain a spirit of creative rebellion’ (Extinction Rebellion, 2018) and call for immediate action against climate change. More radical than FFF, XR employs more disruptive tactics. Driven by a strong sense of urgency in light of depleting carbon budgets and the rapidly dwindling time left to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change, XR engages in disruptive modes of protest such as street sit-ins and blockades of carbon-intensive infrastructures. These more radical strategies and tactics of civil disobedience have been adopted by other movements such as Ende Gelände or Letzte Generation (Sovacool and Dunlap, 2022).

2.4 Three challenges for SDG 13

Numerous actors at multiple levels have sought to advance climate action or delay progress (Jänicke et al, 2015). This has made the governance of climate change complex and conflictual. Three cautionary tales arise when it comes to combating climate change. They translate into key challenges for promoting and implementing SDG 13.

2.4.1 Governance challenge: urgency versus voluntary governance

Climate governance is characterized by a high degree of tension between different actors both within and across countries and raises many concerns about what is being handed down to future generations. Can the growing need for immediate and urgent action to prevent the most devastating effects of climate change be met by voluntary pledges? Will states rachet up their commitments enough over the coming years to make a real difference? Researchers see a serious credibility gap between national announcements and climate trends (Climate Analytics and Next Climate Institute, 2021a). Jernnäs (2021: 60) describes the post-Paris climate governance architecture as merely facilitative and incapable of tackling a global collective action problem like climate change. In her words, it aims to ‘meet urgency with voluntarism.’ Yet, the flexible regime also holds a chance for increased action as a result of intensifying pressure from below. At least in democratic societies, citizens can hold governments accountable, demand that they implement their NDCs, contest weak commitments and advocate for more ambitious action (Marquardt and Bäckstrand, 2022). As a promising example, the global climate youth movement has not only put climate change back on the agenda of high-level politics, but also shaped elections and domestic political debates. Various forms of climate activism, protest and civil disobedience can be expected to foster societal debates, articulate climate justice concerns and give a voice to marginalized positions (Martiskainen et al, 2020). These activities alone will not be sufficient to solve the climate crisis, and may even be dangerous in some more authoritarian systems, but they can and have had important impacts. Nevertheless, they still need to be accompanied by climate-friendly policies and shifts towards sustainability across all economic sectors and at all levels of government.

2.4.2 Responsibility challenge: climate concerns versus development needs

Mitigating climate change has been framed as the responsibility of the rich countries. Historically, Europe, North America and Japan have contributed the most to global warming, especially in terms of consumption-based emissions (Liddle, 2018). Yet, emission trends are changing the responsibility discussion. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol only industrialized countries were obliged to reduce their GHG emissions; in contrast, the 2015 Paris Agreement covers both industrialized and developing countries (Obergassel et al, 2016). Today, developing countries account for about 63 per cent of GHG emissions (Fuhr, 2021), which means that SDG 13 cannot be seriously tackled without considering the development challenges attached to it. Climate change and sustainable development must be considered together to avoid harmful trade-offs especially in the Global South, but also to take advantage of the benefits that can come from fostering interconnections between them. A number of developing countries have responded by setting less ambitious unconditional and more ambitious conditional targets. The latter depend on financial and technical support from the Global North, which has pledged financial support but has to date failed to fully meet its promises.1

The climate crisis highlights the need for deeper transformation as it points to the links among existing economic structures, global inequalities and the maldistribution of resources. Various tools have been developed to explore the interlinkages between climate action and the other 16 SDGs. According to Gonzales-Zuñiga et al (2018: 4), the ‘synergies outweigh the trade-offs found for most of the SDGs’. Fuso Nerini and colleagues (2019: 675) identify synergies particularly with regard to SDG 2 (Zero hunger), SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy) and SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure) (IGES, 2021).

2.4.3 Political challenges: depoliticization versus politicization

The rise of climate movements and street protests as well as climate-related populism and denial point to a third critical challenge, namely the sociopolitical conflicts, tensions and cleavages attached to climate action. Climate governance has long been a struggle between attempts at politicizing and depoliticizing the climate issue. Some scholars argue that framing climate change in ecomodernist terms has led to a post-political condition where climate change is understood as an ecological but less as a political problem that can be managed and solved through technological innovations (Swyngedouw, 2011). Such a framing has come increasingly under pressure. Right-wing populists have discovered climate politics as a major societal battleground as it reflects a broader ideological dispute between an environmentally friendly elite and the population at large (Marquardt and Lederer, 2022).

Since the early years of this century, the climate issue has turned into a cultural cleavage, shaped by competing world views and ideologies. The more obvious it becomes that tackling climate change is not only about environmental protection but also about fundamental changes in society, the wider the gap has grown between supporters and opponents of climate science and the greater the partisan divide over climate change (Hoffman, 2011). While right-wing populists employ modes of climate science denialism, climate policy nationalism and climate policy conservatism (Vihma et al, 2020: 22), left-wing activists and movements such as XR or FFF, as well as progressive left-wing parties, highlight climate justice concerns and global inequalities to mobilize for more ambitious climate action. These interventions can give voice to typically marginalized interests as well as future generations. Machin (2020) describes this form of engagement as ‘ecological agonism’, where democratic disagreement over climate change provides an opportunity to develop alternatives, disrupt business as usual policy making, and foster civic participation. Acting for the climate thus means working for democracy and shaping the society humans want to live in. Along those lines, scholars like Willis et al (2022) promote a switch from elitist democratic practices to deliberation-based reforms such as deliberative mini publics to effectively but democratically address climate change.

2.5 Conclusion

Realizing SDG 13 will be challenging given the urgency of the climate crisis, competing development priorities and political struggles. Climate change was included in the SDGs because it had to be. But, in reality, the development of climate change goals, targets and funding decisions has been largely left to the international climate negotiations and resulting treaties and agreements. Many climate-relevant measures can, however, be found in other SDGs such as SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy) and SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production). The impacts of climate change on SDG 2 (Zero hunger) and SDG 14 (Life below water) are explicitly addressed in the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 (UN, 2022).

Post-Paris climate governance has led to contestation and pressure from below not only to achieve more ambitious climate mitigation targets and to adapt to climate change, but also to work towards more just, fair and democratic climate politics both globally and domestically (Marquardt et al, 2022). Yet, there is little doubt that the Paris Agreement is still too limited to keep the climate crisis in check (Allan, 2019). The interests of those countries most affected by climate change often fail to gain sufficient attention, but there are also signs that climate awareness is deepening. Competition for climate technology leadership among the biggest emitters is increasingly visible. Thus, while the world will most likely miss the 1.5 °C target set out in Paris and incorporated in SDG 13, legislative changes are happening, new technologies and processes are being adopted, and sustainable lifestyles are becoming more popular. With signs of climate change all around us, protests and initiatives to demand action and transform societies will certainly intensify. There is still room for some optimism but there is no time to lose. Climate action is needed now.

Note

1

In Copenhagen (2009) industrialized countries promised to allocate $100 billion a year by 2020 to help the Global South adapt to climate change. In 2021 that target had still not been met.

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