Climate vs. Climate? The SDGs and their possible impact on the UNFCCC negotiating process

Helen Sharp and Petra van der Kooij • Dec 4th, 2015
Climate vs. Climate? The SDGs and their possible impact on the UNFCCC negotiating process

Climate change is one of the 17 SDGs – albeit a goal with a footnote referring to the UNFCCC as main forum for climate change, and despite discussions in the OWG process in which many argued for mainstreaming of climate throughout all goals.

The SDG on climate action raises questions regarding the interlinkages between the SDGs and the climate negotiations within the UNFCCC. These questions include:

- Institutional aspects in terms of fragmentation on the international but especially on the national level, and in terms of accountability and competing reporting obligations.

- Normative dimensions in terms of a more integrated discussion on climate in the SDGs entailing the risk of further politicising negotiations in the UNFCCC, and possible effects on crosscutting issues as CBDR and finance.

Currently, there seems no clear cut answer concerning interlinkages or interactions between SDGs and UNFCCC but many starting points for necessary discussion.

Recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted – designed to supersede the former Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to lead us into a new era of sustainable development. In contrast to the former MDGs which were often referred to as an agenda from the North for the South, these new SDGs claim to be universal in their scope, also calling on the ‘developed’ countries to strive for sustainability.

People’s livelihood – especially in the developing countries – is increasingly affected by climate change. Climate has been a focus area in the development of the SDGs from the very beginning, resulting in climate action becoming one of the 17 goals (Goal 13: ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’). An analysis of the Earth Negotiation Bulletins’ meeting summaries of the Open Working Group (OWG) (which was mandated to draft the SDGs) revealed that a stand-alone goal on climate was not to be foreseen from the beginning.

While most stakeholders agreed on the necessity to integrate climate into the SDGs, the way forward on this was not clear. There have been conflicting positions on how and to what extent climate should become a part of the agenda. 17 of the statements directly concerning the integration of climate change were in favour of a stand-alone goal on climate, often connected to the argument that this would ‘give sufficient political ability’ to this issue and it would send a strong signal to negotiators in Paris. However, the majority of the statements related to climate (58) actually favoured ‘mainstreaming’ climate through the other goals and targets to make them ‘climate-proof’ or ‘climate-smart’. 21 of these statements even explicitly opposed a stand-alone goal. There also has been a significant number of statements (28) which were not clear on whether they promoted the one or the other approach, but stressed that the UNFCCC was the primary platform for negotiations on climate change. Therefore, however climate was integrated in the SDGs, it should not interfere with this convention or prejudge outcomes of upcoming COP21 negotiations.

The controversy over the integration of climate was apparent throughout the debate but in the zero-draft of the SDGs the stand-alone goal – albeit a goal with a footnote referring to the UNFCCC as the main forum for climate change – was there. Some political trading is the likely explanation for this, since most of the countries advocating the ‘mainstreaming’-approach were not explicitly opposed to having a climate goal in the SDGs (at least they did not say so).

But what does this “stand-alone climate SDG with footnote” mean in practice for the implementation of the SDGs and the UNFCCC process?

Some initial research on this question showed that there is no clear cut answer. While indeed many seem to be wondering about the relation between climate (in UNFCCC) and climate (in the SDGs), only few have actually addressed the issue. This article aims at stimulating a discussion and reflects on (possible) institutional linkages on a global and national level.

Institutional linkages

From an institutional perspective, the SDGs and the UNFCCC process are two very different things. The SDGs on the one hand as goal-setting governance can be seen as an attempt to bring countries and other stakeholders to align their (national) agendas and therefore create a common effort to achieve sustainable development but without a legally binding character. The UNFCCC as an intergovernmental, rule-setting process on the other hand aims for something different, namely a new follow-up protocol to the one decided on in Kyoto in 1997, which should include (legally binding) international agreements. This difference between the two processes is important to acknowledge when assessing the possible impact that the notion of climate in the SDGs might have for the UNFCCC and negotiations in Paris.

Concerning action on climate change, success of the SDGs depends widely on an ambitious outcome of the climate negotiations in Paris this year. This is especially underscored by the footnote accompanying SDG13. In the light of this footnote, an assessment conducted by the German Development Institute came to the conclusion that “Goal 13 must therefore be understood as a placeholder for global climate governance within the framework of the UNFCCC, which is complementary to the existing climate regime as well as to the one currently being negotiated” (Bauer et al. 2015: 81). This outcome mirrors the debate during the OWG, which already indicated several countries’ concerns that too specific targets on climate might prejudge the outcome of the COP21 and their insistence that the UNFCCC should remain the main forum for climate-related discussions.

But how do these two processes interact?

From an institutional perspective, the SDGs and the UNFCCC are obviously linked by a footnote to the stand-alone goal; the SDG on climate is made dependent on the outcome of the UNFCCC negotiations. However, apart from that, processes remain separate. This impression is further confirmed by the fact that negotiators are most often not the same for both processes, limiting the potential for integrated thinking during negotiations.

Nonetheless, a closer look at political practices over the year shows a more nuanced picture. Sander Chan, researcher at the German Development Institute and research fellow of the Earth System Governance Project, sees encouraging signs of emerging cooperation across processes “at least at the level of international organizations, where the UN Secretary General’s office is teaming up with the UNFCCC secretariat and COP presidencies in the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, and previously in the 2014 UN Climate Summit.

This emerging cooperation through the SDGs is also already observed in other fora like for example by Earth System Governance research fellow, Nils Simon (German Institute for International and Security Affairs) who tweeted as conclusion of the 4th International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM4) “First impression from a large conference after #2030agenda agreed: Sectors will connect to and build on #SDGs but not be subordinate #ICCM4”.

Although possibilities for institutional linking between the two processes, the current linkages seem relatively weak. Does this lack of linkages risk the development of inefficient overlaps in the governance of climate change and sustainable development?

Country-based implementation

At the international level this is an interesting question, but it will also and especially be of concern at the national level, since implementation, monitoring and review will be the responsibility of governments, supported and informed of course also by private and civil society stakeholders. Concerning climate issues (but also environmental issues as part of the SDGs in general) this might be a challenge for many countries since their institutional structures most often are not well suited to handle development and environment in an integrated way. In a recent article for the STEPS Centre blog Ian Scoones argues that “the SDGs are not just the concern of the International Development Committee but of all government. SDGs should be discussed under Home Affairs, as well as development” (Scoones 2015). Success at integrating climate issues in the SDGs and the UNFCCC will highly depend on institutional structures at the national level. These institutional structures will – for a lot of countries – have to be adjusted in order to avoid inefficient overlaps. A climate goal in the SDGs might underscore the importance for policy makers on a national level to meaningfully connect the SDG and UNFCCC processes, even if the institutional linkage on the international level is rather weak.


Other interesting questions from an institutional perspective relate to accountability and the cooperation between the international and the national level: Where will countries need to report on their progress concerning climate targets? Will it be at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF, which will be concerned with implementation matters regarding the SDGs), at the UNFCCC or both? And in case of multiple reporting obligations, how will they then prioritise these obligation to the two processes? Åsa Persson, an Earth System Governance research fellow from the Stockholm Environment Institute, states “most governments, as well as non-state stakeholders, seem to take the UNFCCC much more seriously – a natural consequence of it being (more) binding than the SDGs, but also because there is a worked-up trust, familiarity, and political investment in that process”.

This might lead to the conclusion that, regarding accountability, the SDGs will play a subordinate role and concerning climate-related reporting obligations countries will have a bias towards the UNFCCC process. How this turns out will probably be discussed after Paris and will be an opportunity to meaningfully link climate in the SDGs and climate in the UNFCCC.

But apart from this institutional dimension, there are other aspects to consider. What does the linking of climate change and development actually mean for the whole normative framework that was guiding negotiators in the UNFCCC process over the last two decades?

Linking of Climate and Development

The sustainable development agenda and the climate agenda of the United Nations are not established in a vacuum or isolated from each other. They are rather part of the same reality. As mentioned above, many argue that “ambitious SDGs require an ambitious climate deal and that an ambitious climate deal requires ambitious SDGs (Ansuategi et al. 2015: 8). The two processes not only (potentially) influence each other on an institutional level but there also might be a more substantial influence.Especially in implementation, the sustainable development and climate agendas are converging, and the UN Secretary General’s office (perhaps representing the SDG process) has helped to broaden the discussion in the UNFCCC to include resilient development - which has become a pre-occupation of the French and Peruvian COP presidencies” (Chan 2015).

On the one hand, the broader, more normative framework of the SDGs might help to inform debates in the UNFCCC arenas and therefore contribute to a more integrated discussion there. On the other hand, including this more normative dimension of linking development with climate might consequently lead to a further politicization of the UNFCCC process. This, as well as the inclusion of more perspectives into the negotiations, might slow them down. Yet, one might question if climate change can be resolved via “rational measurements of the atmosphere” while, taking into account historical debts, climate change is driven by inequality (Roberts and Parks 2007:135). Bringing in this normative dimension might make an agreement more legitimate and all-encompassing. As Chan remarks, “the flexibility and the breadth of the SDGs can help to emphasize that many divides in the UNFCCC process are more political than ‘real’”.

But concerns could be raised whether the politicization of the climate negotiations will then lead to a weakening of the UNFCCC as a pragmatic instrument with a clear mandate of reducing GHG emissions – a perspective that is preferred by developed countries. Developing countries, on the other hand, who are already affected by global warming, favour a more holistic discussion, which also takes into account that climate change influences development (Verkuijl 2015). The SDGs therefore may give them a stronger argument in the UNFCCC negotiations.


Another normative dimension influencing both SDGs and UNFCCC negotiations comes with the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR). Being an important cornerstone of the UNFCCC for the last decades, today CBDR with its distinction between Annex-I (developed) and Annex-II (developing) countries (leaving only developed countries obliged to make binding commitments) seems rather outdated. Especially in the light of emerging economies and major emitters as China, Brazil, India and others. As debates around this principle got increasingly controversial, parties during the Lima conference (COP20) agreed on an adaptation of the principle to the given realities, renaming it to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of different national circumstances’ (CBDR-RC). For negotiations about a new climate agreement in Paris, this might allow for an abrogation of the dichotomy between only developed and developing countries as sought for by several parties.

This trend can also be seen in the SDGs since the goals not only refer to the Global South, but also to the Global North. Nonetheless, CBDR obviously played a role during discussions in the OWG. While several countries constantly referred to the principle, reiterating its importance, concerns were raised by others that the outcome of the COP21 might be prejudged if the SDGs would draw on the CBDR principle. The principle however was not included in the actual goals but has been reaffirmed in the chapeau of the final SDG document. How this might affect further discussions is rather uncertain but it will most likely concern the “means of implementation” (such as financing) (Nobbe 2015) or as Åsa Persson expects: “If and when the SDGs get translated into real financial commitments, then we will see a lot of CBDR discussion.

Climate versus Development Finance

This brings us to the point of finance. As stressed before, climate and development are often mentioned as two sides of the same coin, and therefore it is argued that finance could and should be used strategically to reach development and reduction of GHG emissions in an integrated manner. (Steele 2015Euractiv; Nussbaum and Glasser 2014). But, what does it actually mean now that there are two UN bodies and intergovernmental processes that appeal to nation states to provide the financial means for sustainable development and the reduction of GHG emissions?

It is argued that a separation of the two issues might lead to inefficiency and in the worst case to “unnecessary competition for the same ‘pots’ of money” (Nussbaum and Glasser 2014). On the other side, concerns are raised that if climate and development finance will be combined, this might lead to a shift in priority (with disproportionate attention on climate change). Nowadays, already 17 per cent of the total ODA is used for climate related issues, especially for mitigation in Middle Income Countries (MICs). It therefore comes as no surprise that it are mainly the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) who emphasise the need to differentiate official development finance (ODA) from climate finance, stressing that the UNFCCC states that climate finance should be “new and additional” and that it is based on CBDR. Their main fear is that, when implementing the SDGs, a focus on climate could be prioritised over other development issues such as poverty alienation, equity and demographic challenges.

A middle way could be found in a suggestion to distinguish between LDCs and MICs when it comes to development and climate finance. Most of the LDCs already experience a strong link between development and climate change, therefore ODA could be used to strategically combine development and climate adaptation. This does not to the same extent apply to MICs where climate finance should therefore be additional to ODA commitments.


The initial question of this article was what the “stand-alone climate SDG with footnote” means for an integration of the sustainable development and UNFCCC processes. In short, there is no clear cut answer but a lot of starting points for further discussion:

Institutionally, the SDGs and the UNFCCC process are two distinct processes and the linkage, making both processes complementary to each other, is rather weak. In fact, with its footnote, goal 13 could even be seen as a placeholder. Given political, ecological and social realities, the assumption can be made that a further institutional integration of climate and development agendas is necessary, not only to avoid governance overlaps but also meet complex governance requirements. Concerning this, there are already encouraging signs of emerging institutional cooperation on the international level. But particularly on the national level where implementation, monitoring and review will (mainly) take place, this will need further observation, also taking aspects of accountability (in terms of reporting obligations) into account.

Certain normative dimensions are touched on as well: By adopting the SDGs, countries very widely accepted the climate-development nexus and therefore broadened the general discussion about climate. This most likely will have an effect on the debate in the UNFCCC fora, contributing to a more holistic discussion of climate change. But including the rather normative dimension of development in the UNFCCC process might also lead to a broadening of the debate which could weaken the effectiveness of the UNFCCC process.

Concerning CBDR, it is yet to be seen how the reaffirmation of this principle in the chapeau of the 2030 Agenda might influence further debate and also negotiations in Paris. While this indeed could counteract recent softening of the principle in Lima (CBDR-RC), it seems more likely that CBDR-discussions will rather be focused on ‘means of implementation’ (such as finance) than claiming differentiated responsibilities in terms of achieving targets under SDG and UNFCCC obligations.

Considering all the above aspects, it is clear that there are opportunities to meaningfully link the two processes. An integrated implementation of the SDGs and the UNFCCC process won’t be easy. It will require focused coordination by those leading the processes. And an openness to engage in dialogue from all sides - environment, climate and development - at all levels: from the UN to ministries in capitals, funders, NGOs and pressure groups. It must be driven by a will to achieve stronger and more ambitious agreements in both processes which rise to the true challenge of climate change and sustainable, inclusive development.


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Tags: accountability,climate change,Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR),Earth System Governance Project,institutions,United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)