This brief is part of American Leadership on the SDGs, a project between the UN Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Development focused on expanding and connecting leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals in communities across the United States.
In November, at the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference, the U.S. will join the community of nations keeping alive the promise to meet the agreed target to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. The Biden administration will continue to work to reestablish U.S. leadership and increase global commitments for tackling climate change amid lingering skepticism from other countries. Its strategy for achieving its own ambitious target goes beyond a narrow focus on mitigation to include other important dimensions such as quality jobs, public health, and environmental justice. This offers an opportunity to leverage the areas of intersection and synergy between the U.S. climate agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to advance U.S. climate ambitions, both at home and abroad.
The US at COP26: The Importance of Rebuilding Credibility and Driving Ambition
President Biden has made climate change a key priority of his administration. He reversed President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Climate Accords on his first day in office, and hosted a global summit in April where he outlined a new, ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for the U.S.—a 50-52 percent reduction from 2005 levels of economywide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030.
At the U.N.-sanctioned COP, nations come together as peers to present both individual and collective climate commitments and progress toward their targets. This year, advocates and markets will be closely watching areas such as the phasing out of coal, commitments regarding hard-to-abate industries such as cement and aviation, and increased financing. While President Biden hosted some of the largest countries at the April 2021 Summit, for the wider global community, U.S. participation in COP26 constitutes an important next step in its reentry to the fold.
The Biden administration has already built a formidable team and rolled out ambitious plans, led by first-ever White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy to advance its priorities at home and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry to rally the international community. The COP presents a major opportunity for the U.S. to reassert its leadership on the global stage. The administration will be eager to raise the collective global ambition, and it is likely to build on its April commitments with new initiatives. It may even roll out a climate action plan that demonstrates how the U.S. will meet its new domestic target.
Notwithstanding these ambitions, the U.S. is still working to rebuild credibility and trust on these issues. The administration will face skepticism about both its ability to advance its plans at home and the extent to which the U.S. will remain dependable beyond its term in office.
The US Climate Action Plan: More than Mitigation
The administration’s climate change agenda is also a core pillar of the president’s comprehensive Build Back Better plan. This policy agenda also seeks to respond to the inequalities unveiled during the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning unleashed by the murder of George Floyd. Informed by these objectives, its strategy to reach the newly ambitious target reflects an integrated approach, one that accelerates mitigation of greenhouse gases to achieve the 50 percent reduction by 2030 while also spurring an economic transformation that results in a fairer, healthier, and more just economy.
President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (EO 14008) clearly lays out this integrated approach. Published just a week after taking office, it establishes a governmentwide National Climate Task Force comprised of Cabinet secretaries, with a mandate to “facilitate planning and implementation of key Federal actions to reduce climate pollution; increase resilience to the impacts of climate change; protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, oceans, and biodiversity; deliver environmental justice; and spur well-paying union jobs and economic growth.”
The SDGs: A Potential Force Multiplier
Such an integrated strategy mirrors the interdependent objectives reflected in the SDGs, to which the U.S. and all other U.N. member states agreed in 2015. A central component of the SDGs is that they are universal, meaning they apply domestically to all countries regardless of income level.
While the Biden administration has taken some steps to position its international development investments through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) within the context of the SDGs, it has not yet signaled an embrace of the SDGs related to its domestic agenda. Yet the harmony between the U.S. climate plan and the SDGs provides the administration with an additional entry point to rebuild U.S. credibility and generate additional political momentum for its ambitious and comprehensive climate agenda at COP26.
Similar to the administration’s climate agenda, the SDGs provide a ready-made framework that connects the dots between health, jobs, resilience, and justice. It also importantly helps to set targets for assessing progress and ensuring accountability. Action on climate change has its own goal (SDG 13) and, amid today’s changing environment, stands as an essential requirement for successful sustainable development. This framework for accountability is already recognized and being used around the world, including in specific cities and sectors in the United States.
Given that the SDGs represent a collective global effort, with an imperative for every country to make progress on human, economic, and environmental targets simultaneously, drawing connections between the U.S. climate plan and the SDGs could provide another concrete example of the administration’s seriousness about reentering and respecting multilateral alliances—and stake out a potential leadership position with humility, as it acknowledges the progress necessary within our own borders.
Specific Synergies between US Climate Actions and the SDGs
A key emphasis of the SDGs is to “leave no one behind,” ensuring that governments focus their policy attention on those who have been most marginalized or are most vulnerable. The president’s executive order quickly establishes this as a clear priority for its proposed actions on climate change.
Economic opportunities and new jobs (SDG 8) stemming from a sustainable economy and the economic recovery must benefit left-behind communities—“places that have suffered as a result of economic shifts and places that have suffered the most from persistent pollution, including low-income rural and urban communities, communities of color, and Native communities.” It also calls for greater job opportunities for women (SDG 5). This commitment is reinforced by multiple Build Back Better proposals under negotiation in the budget reconciliation process.
The executive order also strongly emphasizes the importance of advancing environmental justice. It establishes a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (WHEJAC) and calls for the creation of an environmental justice scorecard for federal agencies and initiatives. Its mandate of an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity and an interagency working group focused on reducing the risk of climate to vulnerable groups further advances this priority.
At the center of this effort, the Justice40 Initiative aims to ensure that 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities. It also calls for a new Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to provide further guidance to federal departments and agencies.
These actions directly link to SDG targets related to public health, clean air, clean water, access to green space, gender equity, racial equity, and reductions in inequality. Presumably, both a scorecard and screening tool for environmental justice will depend upon disaggregation of demographic and geographic data, replicating the type of targets, indicators, and evidence base inherent in the SDGs. For example, Justice40 directly reflects the spirit of SDG target 10.1, which calls for progressively achieving sustained income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.
The transition toward a sustainable economy will involve upgrading infrastructure, investing in clean energy, and supporting bold U.S. leadership on innovation while uplifting impacted mining and power plant communities. These objectives tie to targets under SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, Infrastructure), including target 9.4 (upgrade infrastructure and retrofit industries to make them sustainable). The Investment in Coal and Power Plant Communities plan aims to support small, medium, and rural manufacturers in the transition, to increase access to capital for domestic manufacturers, to guarantee union and bargaining rights for public service workers (PRO Act), and to ensure domestic workers receive the legal benefits and protections they deserve.
The administration seeks to produce clean and affordable energy that generates opportunities for job creation. The Initiative for Better Energy, Emissions, and Equity (E3) includes $30 million investment in the American workforce through technical assistance and funding awards by the Department of Energy (DOE), with the aim to save $750 per year in energy bills for nearly 12 million American households, and create nearly 700,000 quality jobs in every region in the country through the Clean Energy Accelerator. By aiming at energy efficiency and universal affordable access to clean, efficient energy, the initiative could be measured through the indicators of SDG 7 (Affordable & Clean Energy), including targets 7.1 (ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services) and 7.2 (increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix).
Beyond the Federal Government: Leveraging US Multistakeholder Leadership
The Biden administration would not be starting from a blank slate in more intentionally fusing the SDG and climate agendas domestically. Many U.S. cities, states, and corporations are already in the vanguard of combining climate action and the SDGs. City governments across the U.S. have begun to use the SDGs as an evidence-based framework for measuring progress and fostering policy coherence among different offices and levels of governance. They also embrace the SDGs as a valuable policy framework that is helping to mobilize progress on climate goals, integrating those ambitions with critical targets on inclusion, equity, and sustainability. Cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix—leaders in the climate and environmental agenda—have pioneered approaches to adapting the SDGs to their local realities.
Over the past five years, U.S. local leadership has also had a decidedly global flavor. Through city-to-city cooperation, networks, and policy exchanges globally, U.S. cities and states are pushing ambition and policy among their counterparts across the world. They have established their leadership in networks such as C40 Cities (chaired last year by Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles), ICLEI, the U.S. Climate Alliance, the Urban 20 (an affiliate of the G-20), the Local2030 Islands Network, and the Brookings SDG Leadership Cities network.
This activity helped maintain U.S. global leadership and cooperation during a notable federal absence. While the Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, U.S. stakeholders remained committed, and many of them have become global examples of combined action on climate and sustainable development.
Hawaii helps host a Local 2030 Hub, providing leadership, facilitating peer exchange, and offering technical assistance with a network of small island developing states in the Pacific. New York City launched the first-ever Voluntary Local Review (VLR), an innovative report on local SDG progress that has emerged as a global movement, one so widespread that it was recognized by United Nations member states this year in the Ministerial Declaration of the High-Level Political Forum for the first time. Los Angeles initiated a local Green New Deal and committed to 100 percent renewables on its grid by 2025 while launching a network of cities dedicated to advancing gender equity. The Biden administration can benefit from the experience of these leaders in integrating the two agendas and leverage the stature that many have earned globally.
Stronger communication and interactions between the local and federal levels will also benefit the implementation of the administration’s domestic priorities. The effort to achieve 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2030 will necessitate a shared vision, alignment, and support among local, state, and national actors, as many of the policies and goals designed at the federal level will rely upon execution by local leaders. From land use decisions to infrastructure and shifts in policies and investments, execution to reach emission targets has a decidedly local flavor. The SDGs provide the platform that can enable local leaders to take on climate while meeting other concerns of their constituents, and provide a common language for local governments to cooperate with the national government as well as coordinate across the vast array of local jurisdictions.
To be successful domestically, the federal government will need to scale up local success and facilitate transfers of knowledge to lower the costs of a fair and equitable energy transition. Building holistic sustainable development plans locally requires practices such as decarbonization, energy transition, geo-explicit approaches, and data monitoring, which require staff, skills, and resources. Federal leadership could help scale up local action and successes by lowering the transaction costs of that exercise, using the SDGs as a universal toolbox so it doesn’t have to be done from scratch.
There are several recommendations that the Biden-Harris administration could embrace in both the short and long term:
1. Explicitly leverage and showcase local leadership and domestic SDG-climate models and innovations at COP26.
This could be done by including local leaders at planned events and forthcoming announcements and partnerships, and even including them on the official United States delegation. Ensuring partnership and regular, open communication between these stakeholders and the U.S. government delegation during the COP proceedings can help jointly reinforce mutually beneficial agendas. Finding ways at COP26 to lift up U.S. local leadership could be a powerful motivator for building additional global partnerships and ambition, and this approach has the added benefit of showcasing U.S. actions that are not beholden to current Congressional budget negotiations or the politics of federal elections. Another opportunity is showcasing the existing and multistakeholder political leadership and innovations already taking place at the local level, through mayors, governors, corporate leaders, and universities. It would demonstrate the global leadership of all segments of American society—after all, it is not just nation-states that will solve climate change.
2. Map and align any U.S. climate action plan to the SDGs.
Doing so would draw attention in the global community and is likely to be perceived as a signal of support for global cooperation that could enable increased international momentum for the U.S. climate agenda. It would also help integrate the interagency process domestically. The National Security Council (NSC) can take advantage of the interagency processes, particularly on Build Back Better, COP26, and climate finance, as an opportunity for using the SDGs to describe how U.S. climate commitments can lead to better economic and social outcomes. This would provide a powerful narrative to bolster its international leadership and engagements at COP26, pushing to accelerate the economic and other transitions needed to reach the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, especially as many governments are grappling with making progress on climate change at the same time as achieving an equitable economic recovery from COVID-19.
3. Elevate the SDG-climate nexus in specific domestic initiatives, starting with Justice40.
Identifying specific pilot initiatives that advance climate action and the SDGs, including around measurements of equity and prosperity, would send an important signal that the Biden administration is committed to supporting action-oriented efforts in local communities. As Justice40 develops its approach, tools, and scorecards, it could act as a pilot by mapping to key SDG targets and disaggregating data by racial and other demographics to develop the evidence base and measure progress on justice and equity considerations. This initiative so clearly combines social and economic considerations with the administration’s climate ambitions, it provides a ready-made opportunity to explore and exploit the intersections between the two agendas. The increased accountability through the use of SDG data and targets would also provide additional basis for building trust with communities skeptical of these commitments, and could help institutionalize climate justice efforts beyond election cycles. It could also create a through-line for upcoming events on the political calendar that are priorities for the Biden Administration, moving from COP26 to the Summit for Democracy, for example.
4. Identify and develop processes and channels to align federal and local actions within the SDG-climate nexus.
Creating more regular and sustained policy channels among local, state, and national leaders would enable efficient local execution on the policy ambitions set forward by the U.S. national strategy and help identify best practices and innovations. Given the priority that local leaders are already giving to social and economic considerations, an alignment between climate action and the SDGs would be welcomed at the local level. This would also pay dividends in better connecting influential local leadership to diplomacy being done in global networks. Several coalitions could be leveraged, such as the U.S. Climate Alliance and WWF’s America is All In.
5. Announce an intention to conduct a U.S. Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the SDGs, to take advantage of the multiplier effect for U.S. commitments on equitable climate action both domestically and globally, and recognize the domestic applicability of the SDGs.
This offers additional reinforcement to the administration’s drive to build credibility and momentum for its global climate leadership. The United States is the only G-7 and G-20 country not to have submitted a VNR (nearly 170 countries have presented VNRs since 2016). A U.S. commitment to a VNR could create global momentum and attention that will add to its new commitments on climate action, connect its domestic action to its global leadership and investments, and provide another entry point for U.S. reengagement in the global multilateral community. Undertaking a VNR would also offer a “unified, measurable vision” that connects to the global development priorities that the U.S. government invests in and implements internationally through USAID, MCC, DFC, and the State Department.
The above ideas and recommendations would send important signals to domestic and foreign policy audiences that the Biden administration is committed to and is implementing policies and practices that ensure a more just, sustainable, and equitable recovery from the pandemic. Since the administration has not yet signaled its approach to the SDGs domestically, these ideas could also provide momentum for what it might do on the SDG framework in the United States as well. The Office of the Climate Advisor and the National Climate Task Force ought to have a major role as the administration determines its commitment to the SDGs overall. So too should regular channels of communication, learning, and policy exchange be established among the growing cohort of diverse American leaders committed to climate action and the SDGs that cities, states, corporations and investors, philanthropy, universities, and civil society are already carrying forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic, a quickly warming planet, and the murder of George Floyd have demonstrated just how connected these issues are to one another, blurring the lines and important connections between domestic and global leadership from the U.S. The SDGs provide an important vehicle for the Biden administration to rebuild credibility at home and abroad and to implement a comprehensive climate action agenda rooted in equity and sustainability.
Acknowledgements and disclosures
The United Nations Foundation provides support to the Brookings Institution. Brookings is committed to quality, independence, and impact in all of its work. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment and the analysis and recommendations are solely determined by the authors.