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A view from the bottom up: Implementing the low carbon transition

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At last year’s UN General Assembly we witnessed the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), soon followed by the landmark Climate Agreement in Paris. 2016 is the year where we shift gears and focus on the exciting yet challenging task of implementing these agendas. As such, the 71st UN General Assembly will focus on joint global efforts to carry out the SDGs, whilst the high-level event that Ban Ki Moon is hosting on September 21 will strengthen momentum to bring the Paris Agreement into force.

As countries come together to reflect on the implementation of these agendas we share two critical insights on transformational change from our work at the country level.

A new development approach requires new partnerships for delivery

The SDGs and the Paris Agreement are deeply intertwined, and need to be implemented hand in hand. This is fundamental to get everyone pulling in the same direction and remove misperceptions that action on climate change can be a burden for development. Last year a report by the World Bank found that climate related shocks could wipe out hard-won development gains, leading to irreversible losses and driving people back into poverty. The Paris Agreement and the SDGs are two sides of the same coin that must be addressed jointly.

Yet, current structures tend to divide these agendas, preventing an aligned response from governments and other financial institutions, such as the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). A fundamental first step to get things right on the implementation of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement is to enable and encourage coordinated work across different portfolios which before might have seen each other as unlikely allies.

Particularly at country level this will require an integrated approach across ministries. For example, agriculture and rural development will be fundamental to reduce poverty and increase food security; however agriculture and other land related activities are the second largest sources of global green house gases; furthermore this sector is also highly vulnerable to climate impacts, with estimated global crop yield losses as large as 5% by 2030 and 30 percent by 2080. So far, countries have responded to this particular challenge by pressing ahead with increasing rural productivity from ministers of agriculture on the one side and increasing efforts for conservation and sustainable land practices from ministers of environment on the other. Consumed by their specific tasks, these ministries traditionally don’t collaborate or exchange knowledge; worse, they often see each other as antagonists.

This approach is mirrored across ministries all over the world; but in the post-2015 world this is no longer valid. Creating the incentives for interministerial work will be vital to addressing this challenge. At national level governments must now redefine a new way of working and cooperating across ministries. Agriculture and environment ministers have a lot to learn from each other, as do ministers of finance, energy, disaster management and national and sub-national governments, and the list goes on.

The consequences of the new reality of a changing climate will impact all areas of development, from transport and energy to supply chains, water, food security and health; if these agendas aren’t addressed jointly we might “erase with the left hand what we did with the right one”, i.e. go nowhere.

Mind the gap: Infrastructure at the heart of both Paris and SDGs

One of the strongest links between the Paris Agreement and the SDGs is found in infrastructure. Whilst goal 9 in the SDGs focuses on this topic, infrastructure is a core element across many of the 17 goals. The worldwide infrastructure gap is daunting: over 1.1 billion people still have no access to electricity, 663 million people lack access to clean water, and 2.4 billion do not have adequate sanitation. Overall, an estimated US$5-7 trillion of annual investment is needed to deliver the SDGs. Investment in clean energy, water, sanitation, agriculture, health and education will all have to be made climate-compatible if we are to avoid dangerous global temperate rise and stay well below 2°C.

According to the New Climate Economy report “Better Growth, Better Climate”, investments decisions on infrastructure made until 2030 will determine whether future climate stability can be achieved. Indeed, the IEA has stated that to have a 50% chance of staying within a 2°C global temperature rise, only zero-carbon utilities and infrastructure should be developed beyond 2017.

Effectively addressing these challenges will require both public and private investments to be directed to low carbon and climate resiliente infrastructure. As traditional development trendsetters, MDBs will need to be at the forefront, aligning their portfolios with the global low carbon transition and incorporating the SDGs in to country outreach and planning. Yet, despite momentum from 2015, traditional areas that deal with infrastructure in the MDBs are not prioritizing low carbon resilient infrastructure and remain disconnected from climate discussions.

Infrastructure decision-making needs to be redefined to keep up with the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. This will require new skills and interdisciplinary work to allow for careful consideration of climate related risks throughout the life span of any new infrastructure assets, and incorporating both climate mitigation and management of physical and financial vulnerabilities across decision making processes, enabling our capacity to fulfil the post-2015 global development agenda.

In 2015, we set to work together towards a positive, truly unified understanding that climate stability and sustainability underpins poverty eradication and future prosperity. To start realising this potential, it is essential to invest political capital to overcome institutional inertia, generate incentives for multistakeholder integrated action and invest in capacity to drive and sustain change at the local level.

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