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It is nowadays undeniable that climate change threatens to stall and reverse the development progress in its social, political, economic and ecological achievements, most notably in the Global South. Embedding adaptation and mitigation measures in the global response to climate change may generate positive spill-overs for the achievement of the SDGs on the condition that these climate policies are consistent with international human rights obligations. Preventing a triple injustice and ensuring pro-poor outcomes, the green economy initiatives are very likely to turn the climate change challenge into a great opportunity to finally make climate-resilient sustainable development more tangible.  

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Climate change’s repercussions on sustainable development

 Climate change does not only correspond to a global justice concern – whereby the richest countries who most contributed to the problem in the course of industrialization have nowadays a greater obligation to take action quickly – but also a sustainable development issue. Indeed, it is nowadays undeniable that climate change threatens to stall and reverse the development progress in its social, political, economic and ecological achievements, most notably in the Global South. This is confirmed by the 2019 UN latest report on SDGs which warns that lack of progress is particularly evident in environment-related Goals (such as climate action) and that – despite overall significant improvements in, for instance, widespread immunization and child mortality decrease – levels of carbon dioxide concentrations continued to increase in 2018 and a growing number of countries are threatened by natural disasters. These trends are very likely to make world’s advancements in food security, inequalities reduction and people’s safety and health vain, confirming that climate change is one of the main obstacles inhibiting progress towards most of the Goals set in the 2030 Agenda, such as poverty and hunger eradication, life on land protection etc.

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Resorting to adaptation and mitigation measures

 Bearing in mind climate change’s impacts on the overall human and environmental systems, it is worth stressing the difference between some key concepts:

(1) vulnerability: the extent to which human and natural systems are susceptible to, or unable to cope with, the adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes;

(2) resilience: the degree of change a system can undergo, without altering the own state;

(3) adaptation: the adjustments in the human and natural systems to respond to climate change stresses in order to moderate potential damage and exploit opportunities for benefits;

(4) mitigation: the system’s capacity to reduce detrimental impacts on the environmental system by, for example, cutting on greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.[1]

 To put it simply, while adaptation measures deal with the current or expected impacts and consequences of climate change with the objective to reduce the vulnerability of the human and natural system, mitigation measures address the root causes and drivers of the problem. However, it is usually thought that even with an immediate halt in the GHGs emissions, climate change will occur because of the slow reaction of the climate system, thus calling adaptation and mitigation measures to be complementary.

It follows that adaptation measures do not have to be overlooked because they strengthen the adaptive capacity and the systems resilience, thus increasing the likelihood to achieve sustainable development.[2] Indeed, factors that determine a country’s ability to achieve sustainable development correspond to the factors that influence the adaptive capacity to climate change. In this regard, it is important to underline that unsustainable development path does not only affect the severity of climate impacts but also undermines the capacity of a system to adapt (through for ex. disaster risk reduction and resource management measures); on the contrary, adaptation measures embedded within climate change policies are meant to reduce risks and to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and economies, thus generating positive spill-overs for the fulfilment of the SDGs.[3] To be more precise, the more the adaptive capacity, the more the system’s ability to absorb disturbances without changing. Therefore, the more the likelihood for a resilient-development to prevent the earth’s climate from crossing a threshold (2°C temperature above pre-industrial levels) which is less tolerable and desirable from a human welfare and natural environment point of view.[4]

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However, adopting measures towards the realization of a climate-resilient sustainable development may not generate the expected benefits if not adequately taking some social implications and repercussions into consideration. Indeed, in addition to the double injustice caused by climate change, these environmental and climate policies may determine a triple injustice, exacerbating inequalities for already disadvantaged groups.[5] This is confirmed by the fact that most policies often have an urban bias that does not put any accent on the rural poor and this phenomenon is equally common in the Global North – where for instance low-income households cannot enjoy the subsidies for the microgeneration of renewable energy because of the expensive investments required – and the Global South – where large populations are displaced as a result of green infrastructures, such as hydropower dams and biofuel projects.

As a consequence, green economy policies lacking pro-poor outcomes may be likely to impair the achievement of some SDGs, such as that “to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” (SDG 7), and worse still, to interfere with the enjoyment of human rights. As a proof, the mitigation projects – such as the above-mentioned hydroelectric and biofuel ones – can lead to the displacement of indigenous people as well as to the destruction of the ecosystems upon which they rely on, harming their health and contributing to food shortages, water scarcity, widespread deforestation and price shocks.[6] Likewise, some adaptation programs may benefit one group to the detriment of another, as in the case of coastal fortifications which protect one community while putting another one under threat of erosion or flooding.

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Changing approach

To avert the negative consequences potentially triggered by the adaptation and mitigation measures, there is need to address climate change as a development issue, acknowledging that any successful solution to the climate problem must come from within the development discourse.[7] Following the same line of though, we must admit that climate change and sustainable development interact with each-other in a circular fashion:[8] socio-economic development paths (driven by demographic growth and industrial activities) give rise to increasing GHGs emissions and thus to the climate change phenomenon which, in turn, impacts any sustainable development’s prospects; vice-versa, alternative development paths reduce future climate change’s side-effects by, in turn, making development itself more sustainable.

In other words, the more development policies in climate-related sectors (land use, health, energy, trade etc.) integrate climate change as a development problem, the more development becomes sustainable ex ante/in its essence. To summarize, the climate change challenge may incentivise the adoption of more development-sensitive (adaptation and mitigation) policies, providing new opportunities for the economy, environment and society and thus, demonstrating that addressing climate change from a development perspective represents an opportunity to make sustainable development more tangible.

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[1] IPCC (2001), Climate Change 2001, Third Assessment Report, Cambridge University Press, London, UK 

[2] OECD-DAC (2011), Tracking aid in support of climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries  

[3] Yohe G.W., Lasco R.D. (2007), Perspectives on climate change and sustainability. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 

[4] UNRISD (2016), Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Chapter 5: Sustainable Development in Times of Climate Change, p.147, UNRISD, Geneva 

[5] Cook S., Smith K., Utting P. (2012), Green Economy or Green Society? Contestation and Policies for a Fair Transition. Social Dimensions of Green Economy and Sustainable Development, Occasional Paper No. 10, Geneva: UNRISD. 

[6] UNEP (2015), Climate Change and Human Rights, UNON, Nairobi

[7] Banuri T., Opschoor H. (2007), Climate Change and Sustainable Development, UN DESA Working Paper No.56 

[8] Munasinghe M. (2003), Climate Change and Sustainable Development Linkages: points of departure from the IPCC TAR  


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