Getting to Carbon Zero – How can the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Help?

28 May 2019

The date was carefully chosen: the morning of the Zero Carbon Bill announcement, the eve of the Just Transitions conference in Taranaki and 100 people were packed into a room at AUT University to hear Rt. Hon. Helen Clark, Dr. David Hall, and Dr. Jo Spratt inspect how these 17 goals with their 169 targets and 230 indicators relate to the carbon problem. And perhaps at least answer my question: …why do they seem so intangible?

Let’s back up a bit to put these goals in context:

  1. The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs as they are commonly known), started from the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 that identified climate change (or “global warming”) as a major global threat.
  2. The Rio declaration of 1992 identified 27 principles intended to guide countries in future sustainable development. It was signed by over 170 countries.
  3. The Rio +20 summit in 2012 created a working party to set up the SDGs to be universal commitments for everyone.

“The SDGs are global commitments for EVERYONE and are an important articulation of shared goals for the planet.”

If you feel removed from these high-level commitments, you are not alone. Like the UN they are abstract goals aimed primarily at policymakers, academics and politicians. The complex issues they cover, require collective action, but the goals themselves need work to translate them into concrete action.

There is a lot to focus on, but at the end of the day they’re about making things happen without trashing the environment.

Certainly the branding is on target. New York based Trollbäck and Company did a great job, creating instantly recognisable graphics. This is a big help when communicating about the goals, when matching them to real stories and projects and for institutions and corporates when reporting strategically against the goals.

The SDGs climate change goals focus on mitigation. It’s the Paris Climate Agreement that sets the parameters for carbon emissions. These institutional frameworks don’t provide the change; they are modes for effective decision making.

When it comes to climate change, the panel agreed politics is the biggest challenge. We have the science and technical knowledge but without political persuasion we won’t progress.

We’re facing two forms of disruption. The first is the long-term disruption of climate change, the second is the more immediate disruption of changing our lifestyles (and business styles) to reduce our environmental impact. The wealthiest will need to make the biggest behavioural changes.

Climate success depends on difficult decisions. We’re talking about the big economic sectors, such as agriculture and energy.

Developed countries must phase out fossil fuel energy generation by 2030. This requires more serious decision making.

“Climate Finance is the forgotten third pillar of the Paris Agreement”… “an obligation that we will have to undertake and report on in time. It hangs in behind all the SDGs”

Co-author of Climate Finance Landscape for Aoteaora New Zealand, Dr. David Hall shared his perception of green finance.

“Adaptation is the neglected partner in Paris Agreement, but Climate finance is the forgotten third pillar of the Paris Agreement: a pledge by all nations to contribute to mitigation, adaptation and climate finance. Making climate finance consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development is an obligation that we will have to undertake and report on in time. It hangs in behind all the SDGs.”.. “Where the rubber hits the road - someone needs to handover cash and at the moment there is not enough money being handed over by a long shot.”

From a climate justice perspective, many developing countries claim it is unfair to have to self-finance all their adaptation. They say they didn’t cause the problem. Internationally public funds are important for the most vulnerable.

Stories of hope

For Helen Clark, her inspiring stories came from communities. She’s seen great results from the UNDP small grants programme (under USD30,000). The Sahel has no energy grid, and communities in Burkina Faso are now creating cooking gas from an animal dung digestor. This technology has meant avoiding miles of walking to cut down wood to stoke the fire.

For Jo Spratt adaptation to change also comes at the small level community. In the Pacific, time and again women get up the day after a cyclone and carry on, replanting their crops.

David Hall’s stories are closer to home with ecological restoration through natural climate solutions, wetlands, estuarine environments and forestry restoration. He believed a third of our mitigation requirements could be delivered through eco-system restoration. These would simultaneously help reverse some of our biodiversity declines. We can all get involved in these projects through corporate offsetting and volunteering. He has been personally involved with Trees that Count that has planted 24 million native trees over two years.


  • The goals are much broader than carbon reduction
  • The focus is adaptation and mitigation but uses Paris agreement for carbon emission targets
  • Climate finance hangs behind all the goals and can finance carbon reduction projects
  • The SDGs identify our responsibility to the wider Pacific region
  • It’s a high-level framework with detail – the trick is translating the framework to actions (Great graphics to help reporting)
  • These global goals affect everyone, and allow everyone to report to the same framework.

This event was organized by the Helen Clark Foundation, you can watch the full seminar on video here.

NZGBC is a member of the stakeholder group for the New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit 1-2 September 2019 at University of Auckland.

If your organisation is reporting against the UN Sustainable Development Goal framework we would love to hear from you. You can also send through a summary of your story to include on the SDG Summit website. Email Susan.