United States

Placing Well-being at the Heart of Climate Policy


Remarks by Angel Gurría

Secretary-General, OECD

23 September 2019 - New York City, USA

(as prepared for delivery)



Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia for co-hosting this important event.

We have gathered at a decisive moment. Across the globe, July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded, and this builds on a worrying trend: 9 out of the 10 hottest months of July have happened since 2005. With an increase in global temperature of around 1 degree Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, we are now witnessing a plethora of extreme weather events and damaging threats to unique ecosystems. Land degradation and deforestation are exacerbating this effect and put global food security at risk, as the latest IPCC report warns. All of this comes at a time when we are already facing the planet’s sixth mass extinction of biodiversity.

Our planet is in crisis! Moreover, at a time when we urgently need co-ordinated and
far-sighted action to safeguard our collective future, the willingness and ability to act for the common good is in short supply.

Progress is being made, but it is not enough

Some countries show that ambitious climate action is possible. Costa Rica is on track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation. Sweden will be carbon neutral by 2050. New Zealand has banned new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration. Norway is dropping fossil fuel investments from its national pension fund, the world’s biggest wealth fund, to redirect 20 billion US dollars towards renewables. Twelve countries have already communicated their long-term low-emissions development strategies to the UNFCCC.

Although these steps are important, they are not enough. Overall global emissions and investments are still going in the wrong direction. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are growing at an alarming pace. The emissions pathways set out by national governments will take us to a world that will be around 3 degrees (Celsius) warmer by 2100.

Furthermore, although climate change was historically caused by industrialised nations, emerging economies are now also major contributors to the problem, and the impact and consequences are strongly felt across the globe. Wealthier countries will need to move faster and further; but all countries will need to contribute to achieving zero net carbon dioxide emissions globally in the second half of the century.

We need to do more, we need to do it better, and, most importantly, we need to do it faster.


Accelerating Climate Action: Refocusing Policies through a Well-Being Lens

Accelerating climate mitigation action to achieve the Paris goals is vital to our collective well-being. It is also important to remember that those most at risk from these challenges are developing countries and the world’s most vulnerable populations. But we need to rethink our approach. In many cases, climate mitigation raises concerns such as the effect of carbon prices on affordability of energy, and the impact of climate policies on jobs. These concerns may limit policy action.

But we must also remember that our climate-change inducing habits can also take a major toll on well-being.

Take air pollution from coal plants, for example: in 2013, nearly 23,000 premature deaths in the European Union could be attributed to coal plants. That’s almost equivalent to the number of fatalities in road-traffic accidents (26 000)! In another recent study, we calculated the tremendous burden of ambient air pollution: this cost was estimated at around 3.2 million deaths and 5.1 trillion US dollars in BRIICS and OECD countries in 2015.

We need to leverage synergies between mitigation policy and other well-being goals. We also must anticipate, manage, and minimise trade-offs that could otherwise block progress.

The OECD’s recent report on Accelerating Climate Action: Refocusing Policies through a Well-Being Lens, identifies and addresses three key actions to move forward:


First, we must refocus our climate policies through a well-being lens. Placing people’s well-being at the centre of decision-making helps increase the political and social support for more ambitious mitigation action, and also overcome the barriers to change. The “well-being lens” put forward by the report takes into consideration the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when analysing a range of economic sectors. Adopting this approach can lead to different policy perspectives on climate mitigation in the five economic sectors analysed, which are responsible for more than 60 percent of global emissions: electricity, heavy industry, residential, surface transport, and agriculture.

In the transport sector, for example, the well-being approach would prioritise accessibility, and not only physical movement, which too often leads to car-dominated cities, congestion, and air pollution. Moreover, it would ensure that people could easily access jobs, services, and amenities using sustainable transport modes, such as walking, cycling, public transport, and even new modes of transport.


Second, we must rethink societal goals. The OECD recognises that promoting better policies for better lives requires a rethinking of societal goals. It means prioritising improvements in people’s well-being that include – and go beyond – traditional economic activity indicators such as GDP. We must ensure that policy decisions consider multiple well-being objectives – including climate – and do not focus on single goals in isolation. This means defining our goals by how healthy we are; the quality of our air, our water and the nature of our societies, alongside material dimensions such as jobs and income.


Third, we must reframe our measurement system. We need to take a more comprehensive set of indicators that can help monitor and set criteria to ensure progress on multiple policy priorities, while making synergies and trade-offs between them visible. For example, Transport for London is using multiple accessibility indicators to guide new development and leverage private investment in infrastructure improvements. These indicators describe the extent to which citizens are able to access the transport system and travel between locations to access jobs and services.

This is also why the OECD is supporting initiatives launched today at this UN Climate Summit. In particular, we are supporting the Leadership for Urban Climate Investment initiative (LUCI), by developing a tool to measure and track subnational climate finance.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The climate action goals that were agreed upon in 2015 in Paris, while challenging and ambitious, are also achievable. But we are lagging behind on what needs to be done. We must accelerate action, for the good of our planet, our well-being today, and for the good of future generations.

I very much hope that the agenda of putting people at the centre of climate action can help governments take the necessary steps to save our planet.

The OECD is here to help. Let us not lose hope. You can count on the OECD!

Thank you, and I look forward to the fruitful discussions this afternoon.





See also:

OECD work on Environment

OECD work with the United States


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