The United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development commits all countries to attaining 17 goals (SDGs) and 169 targets by 2030, including SDG13’s action to combat climate change and its impacts ( Notwithstanding this goal’s long-term benefits and synergies across other SDGs, climate action could have trade-offs with several of the SDG targets (see also M. Nilsson et al. Nature 534, 320–322; 2016). We suggest that the SDGs should be used as reference points to map relationships between climate action and sustainable development. For example, climate-mitigation policies in carbon-intensive and energy-exporting countries could slow economic growth (counter to target 8.1) or impair industrialization (target 9.2) in some sectors while boosting others. For end uses of energy alone, an estimated US$3.5 trillion needs to be invested annually from 2016 to 2050 to adhere to a warming trajectory well below 2°C ( Climate policies can also be socially and economically regressive, exacerbating inequality and poverty (targets 1.1 and 1.2) through impacts on land and food prices (target 1.4) and putting smallholders at risk (target 2.3). And some national climate-adaptation programmes have been linked with violent conflict (B. K. Sovacool World Dev. 102, 183–194; 2018). Effective policy on climate action and sustainable development requires researchers and decision-makers to be mindful of such trade-offs and of how they could risk undermining the social and political support needed for climate action.