Charles Phillips is a leading independent researcher and consultant specializing in sustainable development in the Middle East as well as energy and climate change.
The 2023 UN climate change conference (COP28) has generated an enormous conversation once again on the critical need to address climate change. More broadly, we face numerous challenges at a global level that must be resolved in unison. This is the context the climate change challenge sits within. Since 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have served as guiding pillars for various global issues, from affordable and clean energy to zero hunger to gender equality. At the halfway point between when the SDGs were set and the target date for meeting them — 2030 — where are we in terms of achieving them, and what is needed to ensure we do?
While significant progress has been made (with individual countries measured and ranked in the SDG Index), most of our societies remain deeply unsustainable and require fundamental changes. For example, we continue full steam ahead on pursuing a global economy built on mass consumption of goods and resources. Many of these goods are items we do not need to meet the fundamentals of a prosperous and fulfilling life and come at the expense of the planet’s carrying capacity (its natural ability to provide for us).
It has been estimated that if everyone in the world had the same living standards as the average American, we would probably need around four planets to live on. At a worldwide level, our global footprint is about one-and-a-half times Earth’s total capacity to provide resources to humanity. At the current trajectory of growing mass consumption and resource constraints, we would need almost three planets by 2050 to sustain our ways of living.
Significant steps have been taken to begin to address climate change, yet far more needs to be done. Global warming has now passed 1.25° C above pre-industrial levels and the global temperature is rising at a rate of around 0.25° C per decade. While the clean energy transition is now well underway, all countries worldwide are still not moving fast enough. We are currently way off course for limiting warming to 1.5° C, and on track for nearly 3° C of warming later this century.
Climate adaptation has long been neglected and overshadowed by climate mitigation but both must now be top priorities. We need to become more resilient to the impending and unavoidable impacts of climate change. Some severe impacts have already been baked into the system due to the historic emissions that have already been released into the atmosphere. Moving forward, we need to drastically reduce emissions while also investing heavily in adaptation.
Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves harmonizing economic development, social inclusion, and environmental protection. This is an approach, a mindset, and a way of living that will yield far greater prosperity and fulfillment for all. It will enable us to consume within the means of our one planet and stay within the planetary boundaries so that humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.
Importantly, no country can be considered ‘developed’ while it remains unsustainable. In this sense, we need a significant push to change the conversation on what is meant by ‘developed’.
One popular sustainability approach that is increasingly talked about is circularity and the move from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy to a circular economy. In the latter, nothing is wasted. Consumption of resources is reduced, while everything that is used is reused or recycled. The recent Circularity Gap Report 2023 finds that the global economy is currently only 7.2% circular. This means that we are still extracting and using far more materials than we are able to regenerate.
To achieve global sustainability goals, huge amounts of investment are needed and must be channeled into these top priorities. In 2022, there was a 15% increase in the number of international investment projects announced in developing economies in sectors relevant to the SDGs. However, this growth in SDG-related investment is too slow and the gap in terms of what is needed is widening. It is estimated that this investment gap is now USD 4 trillion, up from USD 2.5 trillion in 2015.
Climate finance is needed to enable and scale up solutions that can help us slow climate change and adapt to its impacts. All countries have been called upon by the UN to bring their decarbonization plans forward by a decade and act much more urgently. This will involve monumental levels of investment now, but this will be far smaller than the economic cost and impact of unaddressed extreme climate change further down the line. That line is not far away; most of us would experience those extreme impacts in our lifetimes.
As part of this investment drive, the clean energy transition must also be inclusive, just, and equitable. This means that while decarbonizing and phasing out fossil fuels globally, the development priorities of low-income countries must be taken into account. These countries must be provided with additional support by the world’s wealthiest countries to ensure all have access to energy and the various SDGs are being met.
The annual COP meeting has become the global gathering in which climate action is becoming the collective rallying call and purpose of the international community. This purpose and a deepening of the global sustainability agenda is one we must all stand behind.
As sustainability and climate change rise ever higher on the list of global concerns, these priorities are becoming increasingly significant drivers in decision-making not only at the level of governments but also at the corporate and business level. Individuals will also increasingly need to prepare for the future based on these concerns.
As we look at the uneven distribution of wealth globally, we already have a clear principle within the global climate negotiations that high-income nations need to support low-income nations in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This type of investment is needed across the board and at a far greater scale to support countries’ sustainability initiatives.