Perhaps the most urgent global-scale crisis is climate change. Already, its consequences are being suffered by people. Travellers who stay within local communities, or off the beaten path, cannot help but notice it. Climate change also brings about a response from people, whether to change local energy systems, mitigate the consequences, or transform and adapt. I don’t think travel writing could fail to mention these developments, and still be considered good.

At the same time, many of my articles under this category are not from travel. And I think that’s because the climate crisis is felt at a local level only gradually, until it’s felt suddenly, for instance in the increasing frequency of coral bleaching, in the increasing droughts and forest fires, and in the weakened spring melt drying up mountain streams due to thinning glaciers.

It’s probably also because climate action isn’t a thing that you can easily see at a local level. Or rather, what you see are the distributed actions that modify other SDGs, such as renewable energy becoming the default energy (SDG 7), electric cars becoming more common, and electrified urban mass transit (SDG 11).

Even then, this is only a subset of what is actually climate action. So at one point I wrote a short series explaining what carbon projects are, just to give a snapshot of the carbon crediting part of it. And even that, is not the whole of it.

There is more climate action happening than the SDG targets

SDG 13 is interesting because more climate action is happening than you can tell from the targets. I suppose they are driven by countries’ UNFCCC commitments under target 13.2. But there are also serious cross-sectoral and cross-national efforts going on that could’ve been listed as a target, but aren’t. For example, the IFRS work to produce a financial reporting standard for corporate climate-related disclosures, or the development of a sustainable finance taxonomy to retrofit the current financial systems to incorporate externalities (costs of doing business absorbed by society and the environment rather than the business).

I think this hints at where climate action targets come from.

SDG targets depend on negotiation and consensus of countries. Some SDGs are stewarded by directly related professions. For example, SDG 3 by healthcare professionals, SDG 4 by educators, SDG 6 by water engineers, SDG 11 by civil engineers and town planners, and so on. These tend to have less drama, because while professional people may have different backgrounds, in general they are professionally connected as colleagues.

But SDGs whose issues are due to power (im)balance, such as SDGs 5 and 10, are usually contentious. This is because someone is the beneficiary of the imbalance. Unless they value the other party in the relationship, they tend to resist giving up the advantage. So it will be difficult to reach agreement on many actions. The good news is, people are doing many of them anyway.

The Industrial Age and global warming

Global warming is a consequence of activities in the Industrial Age. A key feature of the Industrial Age, that sets it apart from prior eras of human civilisation, is mass production. And industrialised nations immediately applied it in everything. This spanned the whole range from industrialised farming, industrialised fishing (including whaling), industrialised mining, industrialised power generation, even industrialised warfare.

The discovery of fossil fuels, and oil & gas in particular, intensified this mass production. It is a source of fuel so versatile that in no time at all, every sector relied on it.

A lot of global warming is due to the burning of fossil fuels alone. But it is not the only contribution to the problem. It’s also expansion of agriculture, land conversion and loss of carbon sink ecosystems, industrial production of greenhouse gas chemicals, and methane from waste in landfills. All of these are related to providing for basic human needs which we are driven to pursue, and which are the subject of other SDGs. And that’s one reason why climate COP negotiations are contentious, when some countries still lack these needs while others don’t, some attained them by causing climate change while others suffer the greater consequences, and still others are dependent on fossil fuel revenue to fulfil them.

So there are not many targets under SDG 13. Aside from the most important one in 13.2, the other targets only deal with helping poorer countries deal with climate change.

The conflict of interest you’re not supposed to mention

There is one last thing, since I promised to describe real life. And no, the conflict of interest is not from the fossil fuel sector. It is one of them, but everyone mentions that one.

Instead, note how the SDG targets only deal with helping poorer countries adapt to climate change or mitigate the effects. None relate to helping developing countries obtain post-fossil fuel technology so that they can fulfil their needs in more sustainable ways. By this I mean tech at scale like smart electrical grids, modern battery storage, thorium reactors, not cleaner cooking stoves.

And I think this hints at another reason why climate COP negotiations are contentious. Not only is there resistance from the developed countries to transfer post-fossil fuel technology, there’s also resistance when another country makes such technology affordable and widely available.

This goes back to how ubiquitous fossil fuels are in every sector. Legacy technology requires it to fulfil basic needs at scale. But new technology allows some of them to be fulfilled domestically, avoiding reliance on fuel imports, shipping infrastructure, and other logistics. The side effect is better economic independence. That this is seen as something only fit for certain countries, or at least for them to have a head start in, slows down climate action. And given how serious climate instability is to life on earth, I wonder if this reveals a much larger sustainability issue that doesn’t appear in any of the SDGs.