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Libby Rust, MSc Energy Systems, University of Oxford

At last Septembers’ Sustainable Goals Summit in New York the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a ‘decade of action’ to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030[1]. Guterres noted that we have not seen the deep transformative change that the SDG agenda requires, given that no government can claim to be on track to achieve all 17 goals by 2030[2].

Guterres’ radical roadmap for the next decade involved a call for increased mobilisation, raised ambition and widespread solutions led by governments and supported by stakeholders from civil society to enable widespread achievement of the SDGs during the next decade. 

This call for urgent global action was followed by a disappointing 25th Conference of Parties (COP) in Madrid last December, where the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses avoided an opportunity to pledge more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to fulfil their pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement[3]. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2019 highlighted the growing disconnect between ambition and action, finding that the implementation of all current unconditional NDCs would lead to a global average temperature increase of 3.2­ C – a far cry from the ‘well below 2 degrees’ pledged in Paris[4].

António Guterres speaking at the UN summit in New York in September 2019 (CREDIT: Carlo Allegri/REUTERS)

The December COP focussed on nine action areas, a key one being the energy transition that is crucial to reducing emissions. The main achievements within this area surround a focus on phasing out coal as an energy vector, with increasingly ambitious NDCs pledges from Slovakia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Chile and the Republic of Korea[5]. However, there was a notable absence of new ambitious NDC targets from the largest coal consumers, namely China, India and the USA, an issue epitomised by the latter’s formal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement last November. 

The 1.4% rise in global coal consumption in 2018 further highlights a disconnect between ambition and action[6]. This was driven by a 3% increase in coal consumption from non-OECD members, and was only partially offset by decreases of 3.5% and 5.1% from OECD members and the EU respectively. China accounted for 50.5% of total global coal consumption in 2018, with the amount of coal consumed increasing by 0.9% from 20177. Given China’s dominance as a consumer of coal it is evident that the upcoming EU-China climate summit in Leipzig in September 2020 represents a critical opportunity for both parties to develop a bi-lateral agreement that can ensure emissions reduction targets remain meaningful, despite US withdrawal[7]

A similar disconnect between ambition and action can be seen in countries’ approaches to SDG number 7, which aims to deliver affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy universally by 2030. At the current rate of progress not a single one of the target indicators will be achieved on a global scale[8]. These targets, for 100% global electrification, 100% access to clean fuels and cooking technology, deployment of substantial renewable energy sources and improvements in energy efficiency, are both critical to achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement and underpin the fabric of sustainable development. 

Recent tracking of SDG 7 progress finds that without additional sustained efforts over the coming decade, 650 million people will be without access to electricity and 26% of the global population will not have access to clean cooking technologies and fuels by 20308. Renewable energy is projected to grow to meet 21% of global final energy consumption, although this is unlikely to represent the substantial increase required to fulfil the SDG requirement. Reduction in global primary energy intensity is also projected to fall short of the 2030 SDG 7 target, with a projected compound decreases of 2.4% annually through to 2030, against the annual target of 2.7%8. Figure 1 highlights the gap between ambition and progress to achieving the four SDG 7 targets by 2030, with the New Policies Scenario accounting for current and planned policies. 

Figure 1: Progress toward SDG 7 since 2010, relative to 2030 targets, historically and by scenario. (CREDIT: Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report, IEA, IRENA, World Bank, WHO, and UNSD, 2018)

Guturres’ statement that a business as usual approach towards sustainable development is no longer acceptable aligns with the demands of the millions taking to the streets in 2019 to demand climate action and ambitious solutions from governments globally.

To achieve Paris Agreement goals the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that CO2emissions need to decline by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, with the UNEP finding that emissions must drop 7.6% per year over the next decade4. This is achievable but requires unprecedented, urgent social and economic transformations that are currently not being delivered1

The 26th COP, hosted in Glasgow in November this year, offers a high-stakes opportunity to implement Guterres’ call to arms for increased ambition and action within sustainable development. COP 26: A Roadmap for Success, a report by the think tank Chatham House, concludes that if COP 26 is not able to deliver the increased ambition necessary to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and make progress in the fields of adaptation and finance, it would become impossible to achieve the Paris Agreement’s climate targets[9]

Last November UNEP Director Inger Andersen stated that we have ‘a stark choice, to set in motion the radical transformations we need now or face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change’. With the upcoming COP 26 hosted by Glasgow, all eyes will be on the UK to urgently drive forward Guturres’ ambitious policy agenda to commence the decade of action!

[1] https://sdg.iisd.org/news/un-secretary-general-announces-annual-platform-to-check-on-sdg-decade-of-action/

[2] https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/dsg/statement/2019-12-19/deputy-secretary-generals-opening-remarks-informal-briefing-member-states-the-decade-of-action-prepared-for-delivery

[3] https://www.carbonbrief.org/cop25-key-outcomes-agreed-at-the-un-climate-talks-in-madrid

[4] United Nations Environment Programme (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019. UNEP, Nairobi.

[5] https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/assets/pdf/cas_report_11_dec.pdf

[6] https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2019-full-report.pdf

[7] https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/11/11/eu-plots-climate-deal-china/

[8] IEA, IRENA, UNSD, WB, WHO (2019), Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report 2019, Washington DC

[9] https://hoffmanncentre.chathamhouse.org/article/cop26-a-roadmap-for-success/