In September last year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were laid out in the document, ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. There are 17 SDGs with their associated 169 targets, developed as the next step in the evolution of what were previously known as the Millennium Development Goals. Countries are now formulating indicators to track their progress towards the targets. The SDGs broadly relate to human dignity, prosperity, protecting the biosphere, and promoting peace and security. While these goals have been accepted in principle, they have also been criticised from various quarters for being too large in number, and too wide or too limited in their scope. Reaching the targets will also be difficult because there are no specific funds that have been set aside to attain them. International development aid, public and private funds, a redesign of tax structures, and other international mechanisms have been discussed and may be considered by individual countries as sources of finance for these targets.
India has an enormous but also an opportune challenge ahead of it with regard to the SDGs. This is because the SDGs essentially encompass India’s overall development agenda since they include health and food, cities and infrastructure, energy access, poverty and inequality, water, sanitation, climate change, consumption and ecosystems.
The interconnected nature of the SDGs makes them complex, but also demonstrates complementary benefits from specific goals and targets. For instance, clean drinking water and sanitation would enhance health, leading to improved nutrition and well-being. Sustainable consumption and production would reduce the use of materials and energy, leading to mitigation of greenhouse gases, and should improve local ecosystems because of the relation between consumption and natural systems. It was earlier agreed that since climate change, the 13th SDG, is under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the targets for this goal would be determined by the Convention. This safeguards the protections and responsibilities that stem from the UNFCCC.
The former CEO of NITI Aayog is reported to have said regarding the difficulty of reaching the SDGs that lack of data has already made it difficult to attain the goals of the 12th Five Year Plan. In addition to paucity of funds, difficulties of data availability and poor capacity at various levels are likely to hamper India’s progress towards the SDGs.
But the SDGs are global objectives that signal what is important for human well-being, and they incorporate many of the lessons learned from decades of development (sustainable or otherwise). Besides, the specific domains that the SDGs target align almost exactly with the objectives of India’s Five Year Plans and government schemes. Thus, while attaining all the SDGs on time may be near impossible, there are several cross-cutting tasks that can be addressed. These include identifying what data we already have used or could use, finding proxies, setting up new institutions (policies, rules and regulations), improving Centre-State coordination to reach the goals, and building capacity.
SDGs and climate change
As many are aware, South Asia, especially India, is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change because of its high population, vast and diverse ecologies, and long coastline.
Actions that will reduce this vulnerability are tightly related to strategies for sustainable development. For example, the first SDG, ending poverty in all forms by 2030, is of fundamental importance for India, which had about 20 per cent of the world’s poor in 2011. Numerous studies have shown consistently that poverty increases vulnerability to climate change. If we begin to address aspects of poverty by understanding its multidimensional and dynamic nature, we may begin to improve current living conditions and increase resilience to global warming. Similarly, making our cities sustainable, setting up better sanitation facilities, reducing consumption, making drinking water and energy services accessible to all, and so on, would contribute significantly to improving resilience to global warming. Many of these would improve system-wide energy efficiency, which would of course reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Sustainable development alone is not sufficient for climate adaptation. The latter also requires information on global warming impacts expected in a region along with knowledge of specific actions that would enable us to live in a warmer world. Building climate change resilience, which improves our adaptive capacities or removes limitations to adaptive capacities, is part of sustainable development.
The disaggregated impacts of future climate change in peninsular India are extremely difficult to predict because of monsoon variability. Regional climate models and approaches to downscale global predictions have been inadequate and only show the general likelihood of more intense rainfall in shorter periods in fairly vast areas, with drought elsewhere due to decrease or variability in precipitation. Overall, these changes will increase the vulnerability of local populations to flash floods, soil erosion, long-term freshwater shortages and declining agricultural yields. Beyond that, it is difficult to tell from current models whether a particular region will be drought-prone or have excess precipitation. In the absence of such detailed information, climate adaptation in India will need to first focus on sustainable development, in order to build climate resilience. Apart from a few exceptional cases, such as sea level rise, where we know the effects and need to plan for its numerous impacts, focussing on sustainable development first is a useful strategy. Sustainable development thus provides an important framework for policymakers and others to understand better how climate change can be mainstreamed into development planning in each sector.
SujathaByravan is Principal Research Scientist, Center for Study of Science, Technology & Policy, Bengaluru.