Tackling climate change is the stumbling block to having the remotest chance of achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda agreed to by 193 countries last year. At the ninth meeting of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)’s Leadership Council in New York earlier this month, climate change underscored every conversation and furrowed every brow. Mogens Lykkestoft, outgoing President of the 70th UN General Assembly, opened proceedings with a frank appraisal of the absolute necessity of meeting climate goals. Without drastic action to curb carbon emissions, he argued, the food and water security, poverty reduction and gender equality goals would be impossible to achieve. 

First of all, reflecting on changes in the political landscape over the past twelve months, it seems clearer than ever that the world’s most influential polities are stuck within systems unfit for purpose. Certainly, they are not rising to the challenge humanity, and indeed life on Earth, faces. Caught in a tight bind between democracy and authority, openness and protectionism, free markets and centralisation, our archaic systems of global governance are proving as unwieldy as they are immovable. Public discourse in the West is drifting towards insularity, entitlement and intolerance. The financing so badly needed by countries threatened by climate change remains inaccessible. The UN’s meeting on migration and refugees this week failed to agree on a definition of Internally Displaced Persons, expected to rise exponentially as climate change begins to bite. Radical climate policy is still the least favourite option of the world’s national politicians. Nigeria’s Environment Minister, Amina Mohammed, warns that the UN’s failure to galvanise progress on these roadblocks is slowly but surely eroding its authority. 

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz made a second crucial point. Far too much of the conversation around sustainable development still revolves around Europe, given that the key to making any headway towards the SDGs lies in the developing world. His own country, dogged by illiteracy and resource scarcity, faces a much sharper uphill climb than its more prosperous, less conflict-torn counterparts. No amount of high-level meetings, he noted, can generate ownership of the people for whom sustainable development is a most urgent priority. Underscoring this point: sustainable development solutions are being lined up all over the world, but without funding, cannot go ahead. Soil degradation in Nigeria can be reversed with the help of climate-smart agriculture, but not without funding. The Global Environmental Facility and $100bn Global Climate Fund are still out of reach, while direct fossil fuel subsidies still total over $600bn worldwide. To get around this, the country is launching its first sovereign green bond in 2017 to supply its rich pipeline of climate projects (pun mostly accidental).

Thirdly, climate action must be firmly and inflexibly grounded in science. “The World in 2050”, a Stockholm Resilience Institute-IIASA initiative, uses a process of “backcasting”. Using an imagined future world as a starting point, it works backwards to understand the actions required in order to reach it. The SSP+ scenario is the only one in line with the Paris agreement - requiring, at the very least, peak emissions by 2020, and 6-7% annual reductions up to 2050. The problem is, countries’ submissions to the COP21 conference last year (or INDCs) are, as former NASA scientist James Hansen puts it, "totally implausible”.

The US’ Clean Power Plan cannot come close to fulfilling the commitments made in Paris. We cannot afford to make grandiose assumptions about biofuels and carbon sequestration without considering their consequences. Extending biofuel use, for instance, requires a huge amount of agricultural land that would  otherwise be needed to produce food. Similarly, nuclear power will be crucial for the transition to renewable energy. Abandoning it would make the world a much more dangerous place, not less. The two key takeaways are simple. For one thing, we cannot have it all. Difficult choices will have to be made between land use, water, forestry and food; and between climate, health and energy security. For another, climate action that fails to integrate the other 16 SDGs is much, much more expensive. 

Diplomatic wrangling over energy policy and decarbonisation is just one small part of the climate problem. Climate change is a golden opportunity to ignite (pun entirely unintentional) a much wider sustainability transition. Education is essential to improve and harness local knowledge. Fiscal and tax reforms, to reduce inequality, and unlock the funding the SDGs need. Agricultural reform, to pre-empt the devastating impact of rising temperatures and falling biodiversity on crop yields. As it stands, most governments are not planning for this. In fact, most don’t have a low-carbon strategy beyond 10-15 years. Almost nobody has a plan for 2050. No one at all has a credible plan for net zero carbon. 

Climate policy that only serves powerful minorities is no climate policy at all. The SDGs, flawed as they are, offer our best opportunity to recalibrate the political and economic systems that are driving the world’s most vulnerable towards disaster, and jeopardising the world that the youth of today will inhabit 20, 50, 100 years from now. The drive for education, equality and access must be an uncompromising and integral part of any climate-related policy. 

Alex Clark is the Project Lead for Operations at SDSN Youth. All views expressed on the blog are that of the author, and not of SDSN Youth.