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Why addressing the climate crisis at our poles is key to achieving Sustainable Development Goals

The North and South poles are essential to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The North and South poles are essential to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Image: Unsplash/William Bossen

Gail Whiteman
Professor of Sustainability, University of Exeter Business School, University of Exeter
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  • Climate change at the poles is putting progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at risk.
  • The polar regions are warming faster than anywhere else and could trigger global climate tipping points.
  • We need rapid emissions cuts to slow polar climate change and get on track for the UN global goals.

Go to a corporate headquarters, parliament or international conference, and it won’t be long before you see the colourful circle of a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pin shining from a lapel.

The UN global goals have been a major success in bringing business, politics and civil society together to work towards a blueprint for the future. They aspire to end poverty, uplift health, safeguard the environment and allow more people a decent quality of life.

But progress on the SDGs is at risk from an often underestimated part of the world – the North and South Poles. By helping to stabilize the world’s weather patterns, oceans and temperature, the poles are essential to the success of the global goals.

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Reaching the tipping point

The Arctic and Antarctic are home to nine critical global climate tipping points – parts of our planet’s system where rising temperatures could trigger abrupt or irreversible change.

Research suggests that five of these polar climate tipping points will be triggered if temperatures rise more than 1.5-2 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels. That will cause irreversible changes – like the collapse of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, instigating catastrophic sea level rise or permafrost thaw, releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and speeding up climate change in a vicious cycle.

That means stopping temperatures exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius isn’t simply a policy target. It’s a non-negotiable physical limit to prevent us from leapfrogging into cascading and catastrophic impacts. A growing body of evidence tells us that unless we take rapid action to stabilize polar warming, the consequences risk unravelling the hard-won progress of the SDGs.

Vulnerable tipping points according to four warming thresholds. sustainable development goals
Vulnerable tipping points according to four warming thresholds. Image: Arctic Basecamp

Undoing development

Take the very first goal – ending poverty. Unchecked, climate change will push as many as 130 million people into poverty over the next decade, undoing development gains.

Loss of Arctic sea ice and snow drives extreme weather far away, including fires, floods, storms, and global heat stress. The loss of Arctic snow and ice could amplify global warming by 25-40%, making already hot parts of the world unbearable and unsafe to live and work in. By 2050, Southeast Asia could see a 16% reduction in labour productivity because of the rise in heat stress.

Good health and zero hunger are other critical goals. But we know that a hotter planet is less healthy and will push many health goals out of reach. Arctic warming alters the jet stream and changes weather patterns. It risks simultaneous crop failure worldwide, leading to global food and water shortages and widespread food insecurity. We’ll be at greater risk of floods, droughts and other extreme weather, and rising sea levels from Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets.

Knock-on effects from extreme weather and sea level rise may further disrupt access to clean water and sanitation by damaging infrastructure and causing saltwater intrusions into drinking water supplies, leading to water insecurity. More extreme weather leads to more humanitarian crises: deadly in themselves and whose aftermath allows disease to thrive, with forced migration following.

We need a new global goal focused on the polar regions and other frozen parts of the planet (the cryosphere), as no current goal focuses explicitly on their protection.

Gail Whiteman, Professor of Sustainability, University of Exeter Business School

Sea levels rising

Ocean health is so vital to life on Earth that it is an explicit global goal. Stable sea levels are key to sustainable, safe coastal cities that millions call home.

The huge Southern Ocean is the “engine room” driving global ocean currents and the small Arctic Ocean’s impact on the global climate system is disproportionately large. Projected sea level rise puts a tremendous strain on each of the SDGs.

Most of all, climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic is deeply unjust. The more they warm, melt and thaw, the more the consequences magnify global inequalities. Many countries affected the most are the least responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions but will experience the brunt of the impacts. It clashes with the spirit of justice and equality that runs through the global goals.

Focused polar policies

The good news is that we still have time to act. Policy, science, business and philanthropy need to work together to pull global goals back on track, take control of polar warming and protect the lives and livelihoods at risk.

There are already positive examples of public-private partnerships working to cut emissions and thereby help to stabilize polar change, such as projects to electrify buses in Maryland, United States, retrofit buildings in Ljubljana, Slovenia and roll out solar energy across Kyrgyzstan. Then there are national industrial transformations, such as that driven by the US Inflation Reduction Act, already boosting growth, attracting investment and replacing fossil fuel jobs with the clean jobs of the future.

To harness this effort, we need a new global goal focused on the polar regions and other frozen parts of the planet (the cryosphere), as no current goal focuses explicitly on their protection.

Programme support

Philanthropic support will help stabilize the poles and protect the SDGs. That could look like integrating polar tipping points into existing programmes, such as in the World Economic Forum’s Nature and Climate Centre, or establishing a Global Polar Sensor Fund to improve real-time monitoring and risk management.

Encouragingly, on 17 September 2023, the Global Collaboration Village, a Forum initiative with Accenture and Microsoft, launched a new space within the metaverse called the Polar Tipping Points Hub, with scientific expertise provided by Arctic Basecamp.

The Hub is an urgent effort to raise awareness of polar change and the link to cascading and potentially irreversible global effects. This purpose-driven platform is powered by next-generation technology. It can help global changemakers experientially understand how the crisis in the polar regions is driving risks around the world and its ties to the SDGs.

The sustainable development goals imaged in ice.
The sustainable development goals imaged in ice. Image: ArcticRisk Platform

If you care about the SDGs, the Arctic and Antarctic, they are a package deal. Progress on the SDGs is impressive but these gains are on thin ice unless we address the polar bear in the room – the climate crisis at our poles.

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