Curb greenhouse gas emissions from energy, industry, agriculture, the built environment, and land-use change to ensure a peak of global CO2 emissions by 2020 and to limit global average temperature increases to the levels agreed under the UNFCCC (currently 2°C). Promote sustainable energy for all.

Targets and Indicators

8a. Decarbonize the energy system, ensure clean energy for all, and improve energy efficiency, with targets for 2020, 2030, and 2050.*

72. Share of the population with access to modern cooking solutions, by urban and rural (%)

73. Share of the population with access to reliable electricity, by urban and rural (%)

74. Availability and implementation of a transparent and detailed deep decarbonization strategy, consistent with the 2°C – or below – global carbon budget, and with GHG emission targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050

75. Total energy and industry-related GHG emissions by gas and sector, expressed as production and demand-based emissions (tCO2e)

76. CO2 intensity of the power sector, and of new power generation capacity installed (gCO2 per kWh)

77. CO2 intensity of the transport sector (gCO2/vkm), and of new cars (gCO2/pkm) and trucks (tCO2/tkm)

8b. Reduce non-energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases through improved practices in agriculture, forestry, waste management, and industry.*

78. Net GHG emissions in the Agriculture, Forest and other Land Use (AFOLU) sector (tCO2e)

8c. Adopt incentives, including pricing greenhouse gas emissions, to curb climate change and promote technology transfer to developing countries.*

79. Implicit incentives for low-carbon energy in the electricity sector (measured as US$/MWh or US$ per ton avoided CO2)


Climate change is an existential threat to human development in all countries. Despite having signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change more than 20 years ago, the world remains dangerously off course in mitigating human-induced climate change. Indeed, the situation is far more perilous today than in 1992. Global emissions continue to rise sharply as the global economy expands, dependence on fossil fuels remains very high, and progress in decarbonizing the world’s energy systems remains frustratingly slow.

The world has tentatively settled on the goal of avoiding a 2 degree Celsius (°C) rise in average global temperatures above the preindustrial baseline. Emission-reduction trajectories announced to date by UN member states are not adequate to achieve this goal. Even worse, the goal itself might well be insufficient to avoid very dangerous climate changes. Increasing scientific evidence suggests that a 2°C rise in average temperatures could mean severe climate changes in many parts of the world, including significant sea level rise and a sharp increase in extreme events, including storms, droughts, and floods. Moreover, actions that produce a 2°C rise in temperatures in the coming decades might lead to much larger temperature and sea level rises in the longer term as positive feedbacks in the Earth systems amplify the effects of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s average temperature and climate patterns. The results would also include catastrophic ocean acidification.

All of these grim realities underscore the crucial need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally beginning this decade and achieve low global emissions by mid-century, even as the world economy expands. Unless the climate challenge is addressed it may become impossible to end extreme poverty, particularly in vulnerable countries, and achieve the other sustainable development goals.

While reductions will be needed in emissions of all greenhouse gases, the most important will be to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. In short, the main challenge will be to “de-carbonize” the world’s energy system, meaning to achieve a dramatic reduction of CO2 emissions in both the aggregate and per unit of energy. The current rate of emissions of around 34 billion tons of CO2 per year from fossil fuel use should decline by more than half, even as the world economy expands perhaps three-fold in the same period. Therefore, the CO2 per dollar of world output must decline by more than 80 percent by 2050 with rich countries facing steeper reductions in per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

Most recent studies agree that to achieve such deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, several critical steps will be necessary, which can also help promote “green growth”: (i) major gains in energy efficiency, including denser urban layouts; (ii) intelligent grids and almost CO2-free electricity generation by 2050 using renewables (essentially wind, solar, hydro), nuclear power,[1] and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies; (iii) electrification of vehicle transport and remaining energy needs for heating and cooling of buildings; (iv) advanced biofuels for a small but significant share of transport, but making sure that their production does not compete with food production; (v) reduced deforestation and emission reduction in agriculture (notably methane from livestock and rice cultivation, CO2 from land-use change, and nitrous oxide); (vi) reduction of certain industrial gases with high warming potential (e.g. HFCs, N2O, SF6); and (vii) reduction of other short-lived climate forcers, such as tropospheric ozone, black carbon, or methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, which will also generate immediate health benefits from reduced respiratory infections.

Achieving such a deep transformation of the energy, industrial, and agricultural systems over the next few decades will represent one of the greatest technical, organizational, and financing challenges that humanity has faced. A complex and interconnected set of policies will be needed to drive this transformation, including research and development of new technologies; support for technology transfer to developing countries; adequate market pricing of energy, including an end to fossil-fuel subsidies; and a social price on carbon (such as a carbon tax) that reflects the external damages caused by CO2 emissions. Also, developed countries will have to follow through on their promise to help finance the transformation of energy systems in low-income countries, including a flow of at least $100 billion per year by the year 2020, much of it through the new Green Climate Fund established under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We urge high-income countries that have not yet done so to contribute substantial climate finance (see Goal 10).

The de-carbonization of countries’ economies must not deflect attention from the urgent need to provide access to clean energy, including electricity and cooking fuels to the rural and urban poor. Clean energy will generate major benefits, particularly for women and children, such as improved health through reduced indoor air pollution, increased productivity, access to modern ICT, and the ability to read or work after dark. We address access to sustainable energy for all with other infrastructure challenges under the rural and urban goals (Goals 6  and 7).

Even under the most optimistic scenarios, some severe climate change has by now become unavoidable. In the coming decades the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will further increase, putting pressure on agriculture, water supply, and infrastructure, particularly in coastal cities and cities in drylands. Some coastal areas will likely be flooded, some fragile regions may become uninhabitable, many more coral reefs will bleach, and biodiversity loss will accelerate. As a result, strategies to achieve economic, social, environmental, and governance objectives must be made “climate resilient” by promoting adaptation to climate change and strengthening disaster risk management. The challenges of resilience, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk management are incorporated in several of the other goals (particularly Goals 6  and 7).

[1] Some nations, such as Germany, intend to achieve deep de-carbonization without nuclear power, while others, such as China, intend to expand nuclear power to help phase out coal-fired power plants.



What is transformative about goal 8 “Curb human induced climate change and ensure sustainable energy”?
The proposed Goal 8 focuses on access to electricity and modern cooking fuels as well as climate change mitigation. The first part of the goal is transformative since energy access was a major gap in the MDG framework. Ensuring universal access to electricity and safe cooking solutions will make major contributions towards human well-being, creating income generation opportunities, improved learning outcomes by allowing children to read/work in the dark, improved health (particularly by reducing lower respiratory infections), empowering women, and many other health outcomes. The SDSN fully supports the ambitious SE4ALL targets on energy access.

The second part of the goal ensures that climate change will be part of the coherent, generation-long narrative on sustainable development that the SDGs will provide. Yet, as underscored in the wording of the goal, any commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, associated means of implementation, and other matters relating to climate changes, such as adaptation measures, must be negotiated under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The purpose of this SDG is to empower the UNFCCC and to ensure that commitments taken under the Convention are part of the world’s shared framework for sustainable development.

Why do some goals focus on outcomes whereas others focus on outputs or means?
Where possible, the SDGs should focus on outcomes, such as ending extreme poverty. Yet, the distinction between outcomes, outputs, and inputs needs to be handled pragmatically, and the design of goals and targets should be – we believe – guided by approaches that are best suited to mobilize action and ensure accountability. For example, ensuring universal access to healthcare or high-quality early childhood development (ECD) are important commitments for every government. Goals and targets that focus on these outputs will ensure operational focus and accountability. In some instances it also makes sense to target inputs. For example, official development assistance (ODA) is critical for ensuring many SDGs and needs to be mobilized in every high-income country. Mobilizing resources for sustainable development is difficult, so subsuming ODA as an implicit input into every SDG would make it harder for government leaders, citizens, and civil society organizations to argue for increased ODA. It would also weaken accountability for rich countries. Similar considerations apply, for example, to the proposed target on integrated reporting by governments and businesses on their contributions to the SDGs.

What does the notion of “decoupling” mean?
Decoupling means a drop in primary resource use and pollution as economic growth proceeds. It is achieved through a combination of new technologies (e.g. photovoltaic electricity and wind power substituting for fossil fuels), investments in energy efficiency (e.g. reduced losses on the power grid, improved insulation for homes), the dematerialization of production (e.g. the shift from vinyl albums to online music and from books to e-books), and proper economic incentives for individuals, businesses, and governments.

Resource efficiency (more output per unit of resource input) is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Greater efficiency in oil and gas extraction (e.g. hydrofracking) can expand rather than reduce CO2 emissions. Greater efficiency in internal combustion engines can lead to larger cars rather than fuel savings. Thus, technological changes need to be combined with appropriate policy incentives.

There are many pessimists regarding decoupling who feel that the only way to limit resource use is to limit overall economic growth. We disagree. Decoupling has not yet been tried as a serious global strategy, and we believe that advances in areas such as information and communications technologies, energy technologies, materials science, advanced manufacturing processes, and agriculture will permit continued economic growth combined with a massive reduction in the use and waste of key primary commodities, a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.

The UNFCCC deals with climate change. Why do we propose a goal on climate change?
The UNFCCC will set legally binding targets among nations. The SDGs will not be legally binding and will not replace or hinder the work of the UNFCCC. Rather, the SDGs, like the MDGs today, will provide a global, easily understood, normative framework to mobilize all stakeholders in the fight for sustainable development, which must include efforts to curb human-induced climate change. The SDGs should therefore help the public to understand the critical issues, the solutions, and the urgency of changing course. Similar considerations apply to biodiversity, human rights, and other areas where legally binding international conventions have been adopted, but which also need to be addressed by the SDGs. The SDGs need to get to the crux of the matter on climate change: that is, heading off the rapidly growing dangers. Because the science of climate change continues to evolve, it is important to define the related SDG so that it can evolve with the progress of scientific understanding and reflect new and hopefully stronger commitments made under the UNFCCC. Today’s consensus on avoiding a 2°C increase in temperature, for example, may not be ambitious enough according to a growing body of scientific evidence. This is especially troubling since the world is far off course from even achieving the 2°C target.

What does reducing to “zero” or “universal access” mean?
Many targets call for “universal access” (e.g. to infrastructure) or “zero” deprivation (e.g. extreme poverty, hunger). For each such target, the technical communities and member states will need to define the precise quantitative standard for their commitment to “universal access” or “zero” deprivation. We hope that in most cases these standards will indeed be 100 percent or 0 percent, respectively, but there may be areas where it is technically impossible to achieve 100 percent access or 0 percent deprivation. In such cases countries should aim to get as close as possible to 100 percent or 0 percent, respectively.

Why are some targets not quantified and marked with an asterisk? Why do some targets have numbers in square brackets?
It is important that every target can be measured at the national or local level, but not every target can be defined globally in a meaningful way, for three distinct reasons:

i. The starting points may differ too much across countries for a single meaningful quantitative standard at the global level;
ii. Some targets need to be adapted and quantified locally or may be relevant only in subsets of countries (e.g. those that refer to specific ecosystems);
iii. For some targets no global consensus exists today, and these still need to be negotiated, as is the case with greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. In the meantime, countries should establish their own plans and targets.

In some cases proposed numerical targets are presented in square brackets since these numbers are preliminary and may need to be reviewed by the corresponding technical communities.