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[NEW DELHI] US negotiators at key global climate talks are working to prise climate and development apart, documents seen by SciDev.Net show, in a challenge to the orthodoxy that has inextricably linked the two since the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.
Countries around the world are gathered in Incheon, South Korea, this week to thrash out a landmark UN report on whether the world can keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – the most optimistic objective set by governments in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The meeting, convened under the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is to agree the wording of the Summary for Policymakers, a politically charged part of the wider report which sets out the key messages and findings.
“Anybody who's trying to prevent action is challenging [well established] science, and that's what the United States is doing,”
In a series of detailed comments to the draft seen by SciDev.Net, the US delegation notes that the report focuses too much on sustainable development and should focus on the "assessment of climate change science" only.
"The IPCC … should not take it upon itself to plot a vision for global attainment of sustainable development goals via climate policy,” the delegation writes.
The Paris Agreement was hailed as a major step forward in combatting man-made climate change. However, US President Donal Trump announced last year that US would withdraw from the agreement.
From the idea that humanity will be worse off living on a warming planet, to the belief that climate change and development are two sides of the same challenge, the comments mean the US is questioning some of the most fundamental principles underpinning the Paris Agreement.
“Anybody who's trying to prevent action is challenging [well established] science, and that's what the United States is doing,” says IPCC author Saleemul Huq, who heads the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.
However, others fear that decoupling climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals could be an effective strategy with serious consequences.
"The developed world already has a disproportionate lobbying power within the UN climate framework," says Vijeta Rattani, climate change programme manager with the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, India.
If the voice of developing nations was not listened to, she says, "they would be forced to revise their [climate pledges under the Paris Agreement] substantially and drastically in the next cycle [of negotiations]".
In the comments, the US questions the core premise of the upcoming report, that the world would be worse off as the world warms.
Humanity, it says quoting a number of published studies, "has never been more prosperous, less poverty-stricken, less hungry, longer-lived and healthier than today”. It cites the example of India and China as two nations that are still relying heavily on fossil fuels but are also thriving economically.
The arguments tabled by the US, says Teresa Anderson, Policy officer on Climate Change with Action Aid, "are part of the same effort to remove the recognition of the impacts of climate change and undercut the purpose of this report".When the IPCC was given a mandate to assess climate science underpinning the 1.5°C target, she says, the study of impacts was clearly mentioned, and the SDGs are the best tool available to assess them against measurable goals.
"These two frameworks (IPCC and SDGs) are completely interlinked, they are a cobweb of institutions and you can't really achieve one without the other," she says.
For coastal communities in Bangladesh losing the land to rising sea levels or experiencing cyclones every year, she says, or for African farmers going hungry because of crop failure, "[to hear] that climate change is making you wealthier is kind of insulting and cruel”.
In an emailed statement, the US delegation said: “The United States is leading the world in providing affordable, abundant, and secure energy to our citizens, while protecting the environment and reducing emissions through job-creating innovation rather than job-killing regulation.”