From Paris to pandemic: charting the changing landscape for sustainable development

Andrew Norton reflects on the changing global context since becoming director of IIED, and asks what we can learn by comparing the post-Paris landscape to today’s geopolitical turmoil

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Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
01 September 2022
A host of people carrying placards and banners, with a prominent banner that says: "Danger: delay kills you".

People in South Africa protest about a lack of climate action (Photo: Speak Your Mind/Julian Koschorke, via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

In 2015, my first six months as director of IIED held two strikingly hopeful moments: the Paris Agreement on climate change and the launch of Agenda 2030. Since then, some other instances of big positive change have followed, most notably the upsurge in worldwide climate activism

But while 2022 provided grounds to hope that energy transition in the US will pick up pace and early signs that China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions may fall, there remain too many areas where progress has been slow, or regressed. The natural world remains under assault; global GHG emissions show no sign of the rapid decline the world desperately needs. 

We risk a downward spiral (PDF), where growing inequality and injustice undermine institutions that could help address the climate and nature emergency at local and global levels. In turn, the unchecked climate and nature breakdown – felt most by the poorest people – fuels increasing inequality.

But there is still time for a positive ‘green spiral’ to kick in instead: leading to rapidly reducing emissions, greater locally-led action that values the natural world, and increased climate, biodiversity and social justice. Achieving this will require sustainable development actors to be alert to the changing geopolitical landscape.

Shortly I will move on from the brilliant job I’ve had for the last seven years. Reflecting on my time at IIED, I was prompted to ask, what we can learn by comparing the hopeful landscape for sustainable development in 2015 with this current moment of increasing climate impacts and conflict-fuelled geopolitical turmoil?

It seems to me that at the fulcrum of change – the point where it may be possible to move from a downward spiral to a positive one – is the question of inequality, both within and between countries.

2015: setting a course for climate ambition 

It is hard to overstate how important COP21 in Paris seemed. After the failure of COP15, it took incredible effort and ingenuity to create the ‘bottom up’ architecture of the first worldwide climate treaty

The notion that country governments would rapidly reduce emissions in response to pressure from citizens and other countries was a risky bet. But it was one worth taking: before COP21, full implementation of national plans had the world heading for 3.5°C of warming over pre-industrial levels; by COP26, that figure was 2.4°C. Not good, but better.

The Paris Agreement – reflecting pressure from vulnerable country groups, including the least developed countries – made the case for limiting anthropogenic warming to 1.5°C degrees, down from the accepted norm of 2°C. This enabled the IPCC to gain enormous cut through for its special report on 1.5°C, convincing citizen and policy publics worldwide that even this target would mean a profoundly disrupted world.   

It also drew attention to loss and damage, a hugely consequential early step in the journey towards recognition of the immense harms that will result from the climate crisis and the vast efforts needed to address them. That is a journey that has barely started. A recent overview by IIED lays out some of the implications for the countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

COP21 also reiterated the goal of reaching US$100 billion per year of international climate finance by 2020. It’s a laughably small figure compared to what a climate justice perspective would generate, and yet the collective efforts of rich nations fell nearly 20% short in 2020.

Beyond the climate crisis, Agenda 2030 mattered too, not least as the first global agreement to include a goal on reducing inequality. The agreement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gave ‘development’ a genuinely universal framing, and pointed to the important links between the goal areas – how a focus on terrestrial and marine biodiversity, for example, was important to human wellbeing in all other dimensions.

The challenges of a changing world

Just a year after later, during COP22 in Marrakech, we learned that a climate change denier would become president of the world’s second largest GHG emitter. 

It is not hard to discern the alignment behind a bogus, backward looking, petro-fuelled nationalism and the catastrophic philosophies of denial and delay that risk the present of many and the future of all. A realistic politics of hope in our era focuses on collective action between countries to tackle the big global challenges; the fake framings of populist nationalism are bound, dishonestly, to reject this.

The time lost to US obstruction and ultimately withdrawal from global climate action really mattered. Every year that global emissions don’t fall, keeping warming under 1.5°C gets harder. The scale of climate disruption through heat stress and wildfires over recent months – at just 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels – has been staggering.  

COVID-19 was (and remains) a sharp reminder that a global ecological crisis driven by climate breakdown and nature loss will disrupt our world in multiple and unexpected ways, ever more powerfully and at shorter intervals. 

A striking impact of the pandemic has been an increase wealth and income inequality (PDF), both:

  • Between countries (wealthier nations’ swifter economic recovery was aided by greater access to vaccines and therapies, as well as recovery and response finance), and 
  • Between individuals and households (the super-rich benefited massively; many in the middle were able to move their work online; those working in the informal sector in the poorest countries were exposed to risk and devastating livelihood loss). 

Almost universally, women picked up extra care burdens, were more likely to suffer economically, and – alongside elders and children – were exposed to greater levels of domestic violence.

But a heartening rise in impatient and ambitious activism seeking social, ecological and climate justice has hopefully laid the groundwork for radical and transformative change. As these movements have grown, consciousness of the damage being done by colonial legacies and systematic racism has swelled.  

Multiple dimensions of intersectional disadvantage impact on our capacity to cope with the disruptions of the global ecological crisis, including gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality and disability. Successful responses to environment and development challenges will need to recognise this.

2022 and beyond

The defining question of this moment is the huge shift in geopolitics and global governance caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The military capability needed to execute the war is paid for by fossil fuels.

It is tempting to see the war as one of the radical discontinuities of the climate crisis: is this a reflex by an authoritarian petrostate anticipating that the global energy transition will one day curtail its military power? 

In the short term, the invasion will propel the energy transition and investment in renewables; but is also driving a pivot back to fossil fuels by European countries struggling to manage an energy crisis. A bigger question is around the impact on the global architecture for multilateral action: today’s fractured G20 will struggle to show leadership, whether in relation to the emerging debt crisis or to driving climate ambition among the major GHG emitters. 

The war has also exposed fragilities in global food supply chains, with huge potential consequences. Over time, OECD countries may divert support away from the poorest states and vital parts of the international system and towards managing the immediate challenges posed by the conflict. There is also the spectre of a long-term rise of European military expenditure, fuelled by heightened insecurity, which could distract from necessary development and climate action. 

Finding a way forward

In the remaining months of 2022, we will see whether the major economies step forward with more ambitious targets and plans for reducing emissions, either at September’s UN General Assembly or at November’s UN climate talks, due to be held in Egypt. At COP27, it is critical that actors:

Another key moment is due in December: the long-delayed COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Agreement of a clear and ambitious framework for protecting the natural world is vitally important; it must be founded on respect for the cultures and rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities and supported by finance which empowers them to protect their environments and livelihoods. Slow progress to date indicates that greater commitment is needed from all parties, including the formal host, China.

In the long run, progress will be built on two foundations. 

The first is a layered, resilient architecture of social movements and democratic organisations, led by economically marginalised people and capable of managing landscapes and livelihoods in line with the demands of the moment: fostering equity, protecting biodiversity, building resilience and promoting transitions to a zero-carbon economy.

The second is a revival of the social contract that underpins global multilateral action. This demands a restart of the process of wealth and income convergence between richer and poorer nations that was halted by the pandemic. Beyond that, rich countries will need to ensure proper funding of the multilateral system, keep their promises on development and climate action when other stressors bite.

A unique contributor to global justice

A final word on IIED, where I have had the privilege to serve for seven years. The commitment to being an actor for justice infuses the whole organisation in wonderful ways and is taken forward through all its work. And there is so much great work that colleagues, partners and our wider networks have driven forward. 

Lists always run the risk of omission, but – just to illustrate – here are a few initiatives that I hope you might take a look at:

I look forward to seeing how IIED grows and develops under its new executive director, and welcome Tom Mitchell to the post. Given the complexity and pace of our global challenges, IIED’s contribution will be ever more important in the years to come.