It is now confirmed that Fiji will be chairing the next United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 23) in Bonn, Germany. This is welcome news as the islands of the Pacific arguably have the most to lose – and the most to gain – when it comes to sustainable development.
As a region of the world that is home to some of our most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities, destined to suffer the worst effects of climate change, the Pacific perhaps best embodies the importance of ‘leaving no-one behind’.
This pledge appears no less than six times in the declaration made by world leaders when they agreed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development last year and it has quickly emerged as one of the most powerful means of framing our new approach to inclusive development. When leaders committed to the Global Goals, we committed to reach the furthest behind first - to listen to their voices, to involve them in designing policies that promote inclusion and challenge the social barriers that deny opportunity and limit potential.
Of course, in many ways, reaching the poorest first is an old promise unmet. One of the weaknesses of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework was its blindness to inequality and the most marginalised in our societies. Its focus on aggregate figures and overall progress failed to take into account growing social and economic disparities, while incentivizing states and large NGOs to prioritise big-picture wins. Even as overall poverty levels fell, inequality increased and the standard of living for the poorest and most marginalised worsened significantly.
Take India, often held up as an exemplar of economic growth using basic income level measures: research from our partners at Development Initiatives shows that the proportion of the Indian population who find themselves in the poorest 20 per cent globally has grown from 16 per cent to 38 per cent in the last 25 years. In the same time period, the absolute gap between the poorest 20 per cent globally and the rest of the world has widened significantly. As our colleagues at Oxfam have shown, runaway inequality has created a world in which 62 individuals now own as much as the poorest half of the world's population.
But the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) force us to look beyond income and, indeed beyond averages. They compel us to tackle social and political marginalization, as well as economic; to amplify the voices of those who aren’t heard; to create a system in which people are empowered to shape their own communities.
And when it comes to approaching climate justice, ‘leaving no one behind’ offers an equally powerful framework. Socially, economically, politically, or otherwise marginalised people are most vulnerable to climate disruption. When they have done the least to cause the problem, these people – people like the Pacific Islanders – are suffering first and worst from the consequences of climate change. In all actions designed to foster climate justice, they must be our priority. Official UN estimates put the cost of achieving sustainable development at US $5-7 trillion per year, a large slice of which must fund the transition to a low-carbon world economy.
With its commitment to move to 100 per cent renewable energy sources, Fiji, along with a number of other Pacific Island nations, has already shown significant moral and practical leadership in this area. Yet, even if these small nations achieve this most difficult of domestic mitigation goals, the frightening fact remains that their efforts could be in vain. Should other countries fail to take sufficient steps to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, or below, adaptation will become the only option.
Simply put, our climate change goals cannot be achieved if we fail to deliver our broader sustainable development agenda. Both sets of goals are about rising above narrow national interests and committing to a shared vision of the future. So too at the implementation level, we can no longer afford to treat climate action and sustainable development as two distinct agendas to be pursued in tandem. Well-designed policies and actions to reduce emissions and enhance resilience to climate disruptions can deliver broad sustainable development benefits.
Similarly, advancing progress towards the SDGs can contribute to climate impact mitigation and adaptation. For too long anti-poverty strategies and programs designed to protect the environment have been designed separately, often leading to conflict on the ground, wastage of scant resources and adverse impacts on both sides.
With Fiji’s UN Ambassador, Peter Thompson, currently serving as the President of the General Assembly, Fiji is well-placed to push for meaningful international action and to underline the linkages between climate change and development. This will not only be critically important from the point of view of maximizing funding, catalysing information-sharing and data development and streamlining planning, budgetary and monitoring processes; it represents a vital opportunity to tell the shared story of these two agendas, to build a powerful new narrative around our collective plans to achieve sustainable, inclusive, development.
The notion of ‘leaving no one behind’ has the potential to engage and motivate people in a way that the full list of 17 SDGs and their 169 targets cannot, as well as offering a simple, effective way of holding governments to account. Ultimately, I believe it will be the true test of our new development agenda’s transformative potential – and holds the key to a positive future for the peoples of the Pacific.
Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is Secretary General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance with members in more than 175 countries.