COP21 SERIES A symbiotic relationship: Sustainable Development Goals and COP21

Cecilia Sorensen and Jay Lemery

Irrefutable evidence demonstrates that human health depends on environmental health and that the protection of human rights and strict environmental standards are mutually reinforcing.1 By attempting to address root causes of human inequality, the recently sanctioned SDGs made great strides to clarify the connection between climate change and the universal achievement of fundamental human rights (life, health, security, food and water, housing, self determination).2

Paris provides an ideal opportunity to cement this connection. By unifying rather that separating global agendas, policy makers have the opportunity to leverage lessons learned from the creation of the SDGs to negotiate sound climate agreements. Moving away from a myopic world view, where economy, environment and development are seen as separate issues, will result in more consistent progress towards halting further destruction of human rights and the environment.

The evidence is clear that climate change threatens human health and universal human rights. Through extreme weather events, flooding, food insecurity, water and vector-borne infections, violent conflict, poor air quality as well as mental and heat related illness, climate change poses significant risks to all. But those most likely to suffer are vulnerable, marginalized and resource-poor communities.

Despite scientific evidence and 20 climate summits, essentially an entire generation has passed without significant international cooperation towards addressing this threat to human life. The UN and global community have the resources and logistical intelligence to intervene on a large scale to promote peace and wellbeing. Barriers to global cooperation are many but essentially as follow:

  1. resource-scarce and less developed countries are at the same time the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the least responsible for rising CO2 levels;
  2. these countries feel entitled to sacrifice the environment in order to improve their standard of living and security, just as more developed nations have done;
  3. developed nations want all countries to participate in halting climate change and to be held to the same standards.

This stalemate must be broken.

The goal of COP21 is to create a legally binging agreement where by all countries are held to the same “measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV)” regulations in order to limit the average increase in global temperature to below 2O Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

The SDGs in many ways support the goals of COP21. For example, SDG 7 outlines the need for “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

COP21 can reinforce this by putting forth MRV plans to achieve access to energy resources that poorer nations will need to advance standards of living. SDG 1.5 outlines the need to “build resilience of the poor and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate related events.” The COP21 summit is a perfect opportunity to cement MRV plans to meet SDG 1.5, and to acknowledge that the 2O Celsius goal is a threat to national development and sovereignty. Thus, integration of these complementary agendas will ensure that each is achieved.

Just as the protection of human rights and a healthy environment are mutually reinforcing, so too are the SDGs and COP21.

Cecilia Sorensen, MD, is a physician at the Denver Health and University of Colorado Hospital, USA

Jay Lemery, MD, is Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine and Fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. He is co-editor of a forthcoming book Global Climate Change and Human Health: From Science to Practice, and was Guest Editor on the Health and Human Rights Journal special issue on Climate Justice and the Right to Health.



1 Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Finalized Text for Adoption (1August), available at:

2 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. 1948


Previous publication in HHRJ by these authors:

SDG SERIES: Inconsistent translation from science to practice: SDGs and the health impacts of climate change by Cecilia Sorensen and Jay Lemery