The unfortunate reality of the current standing of the UN
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) paints a dreary picture: progress on more
than 50% of the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals has been
categorized by the United Nations as ‘weak’ or ‘insufficient,’ while 30% have
stagnated or regressed altogether,
ultimately leaving a majority of the world’s poorest populations light years
behind the developed world.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September of 2015 in unison with the UN’s 70th anniversary. Deemed as a plan of action for people, our planet, and collective prosperity, the agenda’s preamble underscores that the eradication of poverty remains the greatest global challenge of our time and is intrinsically tied to successfully achieving sustainable development. Seventeen SDGs along with 169 targets were adopted as part of the 2030 Agenda, which called for a 15-year timeframe to achieve its objectives. The 17 people-centric goals aim to achieve sustainable development in three main areas: economic growth, social development, and preservation of the environment.
The 2023 SDG Summit held during the United Nations General Assembly in September will serve as a half-way point from the 2015 declaration to assess progress and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, along with the 17 SDGs.
Established in 2012, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was formed following the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, titled, “The Future We Want.” Conference discussions resulted in the development of the ‘Outcome Document,’ which highlighted clear and practical measures to address sustainable development while advocating for a green economy. The text included broad, overarching themes outlining objectives to eradicate poverty, tackle food security and the promotion of sustainable agriculture, ensure access to sustainable modern energy services, promote sustainable cities and transportation, urgently address the health needs of the world’s population, and promote full and productive employment for all.
These objectives would later translate into the 17 SDGs, which seek to address the world’s most urgent challenges, which, for the most part, are all interrelated. Deemed by the United Nations as a “Universal Call to Action,” the SDGs aim to ensure a better quality of life for people across the globe while simultaneously protecting the environment.
The establishment of the HLPF aims to serve as the primary United Nations platform concerning sustainable development. The HLPF meets annually in July, assembling high-level government representatives and various stakeholders to assess progress and obstacles while making recommendations to best achieve the 2030 Agenda along with the SDGs. In July 2022, the HLPF called for the September 2023 SDG Summit to “mark the beginning of a new phase of accelerated actions leading up to the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs.”
Government leaders, civil society members, women, youth, and interested parties from the private sector converged at the recent SDG Summit for a series of high-level meetings to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the SDGs’ current status while also responding to a series of cascading crises that are affecting much of the world, such as poverty, hunger, and climate-related issues. The summit aimed to provide policy recommendations to scale up and mobilize further resources through multi-stakeholder collaborations to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.
The 2030 Agenda in Peril
The hallmark of the 2030 Agenda – to ensure no person across the globe is left behind – currently remains in peril. Deemed by the United Nations as a poly-crisis era, our world today is currently experiencing a multitude of interlinked economic and social crises that continue to hamper sustainable development progress, including post-pandemic setbacks, the effects of ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and an ever-present climate crisis.
A global post-pandemic reality
The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in an increase in educational inequalities among an entire generation of school-aged children who were faced with disruptions in learning as a result of school closures. These lapses exacerbated pre-existing learning challenges, widened achievement gaps, and were especially problematic for lower-income families who lacked access to fast, reliable broadband. Out of 104 countries reviewed as case studies throughout the pandemic, 4 out of 5 nations experienced learning losses as a result of COVID-related school closures.
Two-thirds of school-age students worldwide, equal to 1.3 billion children aged 3 to 17 years old, did not have internet connections in their homes by the end of 2020, leaving students incapable of participating in virtual learning and online socializing. As the pandemic cast a harsh spotlight on the current digital divide, today’s rapid advancements in digitization should serve as a driver to meet the goals of SDG9 - Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, which include increasing mobile broadband access.
Following a return to in-person learning in 2022 for most students, American educators discovered reading scores for 9-year-olds had plummeted to their lowest levels in nearly three decades, while math scores fell seven points from 2020 to 2022. Countries in South Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, implemented the longest pandemic-induced school closures globally, nearly 84 weeks in total. As a result, the South Asian nations experienced the largest learning delays world-wide, equivalent to 12.4 months.
These extended learning setbacks are expected to have a trickle-down effect on the global economy. For children in grades 1 to 12, school closures may result in nearly a 3% lower income over their entire lifespan, according to research conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) during the onset of the pandemic. Likewise, the OECD determined in their 2020 study, which analyzed the economic impacts of learning losses as a result of pandemic-induced school closures, that nations may “yield an average of 1.5% lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century.”
Of all the sustainable goals, SDG 4 – Quality Education, which aims to ensure children and young adults receive inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all, remains the clearest path to overcome barriers of inequality. Access to education is not only a basic human right but also an enabler for sustainable development progress. In a rapidly changing world, quality education remains central to the ability of today’s youth to adapt to and transform our world for the better.
The far-reaching impacts of the war in Ukraine
By the end of 2022, global conflict had resulted in more than 108 million people worldwide being forcibly displaced from their homes – that’s more than two-and-a-half times as compared to a decade ago. SDG 16 – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, which designates peaceful and inclusive societies as indispensable parameters to achieving sustainable development, remains in jeopardy so long as the conflict in Ukraine, along with many other crises worldwide, continues to undermine citizens’ rights to live a free and prosperous life.
As a result of the prolonged war in Ukraine, the correlation between disruptions in food and energy supply chains and their effect on the global economy has continued to undermine the global outlook as the world attempts to rebound post-pandemic.
An estimated 6.7 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the onset of conflict, according to recent statistics published by the Center for Economic Strategy (CES), equal to 8% of its pre-war population. Many asylum seekers, mainly young mothers, aim to establish new lives outside Ukraine, seeking a better life for their children as the uncertainty of the dire reality at home remains too much to bear. Such decisions could eventually undermine rebuilding efforts for Ukraine once the war is over. According to the CES report, refugees remaining abroad indefinitely could have significant impacts on the economy, with losses expected between 2.7% and 6.9% of GDP annually.
However, the crisis in Ukraine has also had far-reaching impacts well beyond its borders. Rising food and energy costs as a result of western sanctions on Russia and the Russian blockades in the Black Sea – the main point of transit for the export of Eastern European grains – slowed economic growth worldwide while simultaneously driving up global inflation. Such factors forced federal governments to fight inflation through a series of interest rate hikes, leading to a global cost of living crisis.
Both the peripheral impacts of war in Ukraine and across the globe run the risk of undermining sustainable development, which at its core is intrinsically tied to peace, stability, the protection of human rights, and effective and transparent governance.
The climate crisis upon us
The recently published synthesis report by the United Nations concerning the technical dialogue of the first global stocktake offered a sobering analysis of the world’s climate efforts since the adoption of the Paris Accords in 2015. The report underscored a potentially bleak future, stating there remains a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all” – ‘livable’ being the trigger word that should put world leaders on notice. The era of delay and inaction is over.
Key findings in the report detailed that in order to successfully achieve sustainable development, world governments need to support system transformations that conventionalize climate resilience and low GHG emissions development. The report also noted that bridging gaps in key areas can help ease the barriers to implementing the Paris Accords. Proposals include increasing international cooperation, advancing credible initiatives that highlight an “all of economy, all of society” approach across all systems and sectors, and increasing climate financing.
Climate change and sustainable development
There is an indisputable link between climate change and achieving sustainable development. Recent globally rising temperatures, increased flooding, and extended droughts can all have severe impacts on basic human needs, as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. The milestone document described as the ‘international Magna Carta for all mankind’ outlines in Article 25:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that as a result of recent extreme weather patterns, which are undeniably beyond the control of many of the world’s poorest nations, more than 20 million people will be forced to leave their homes each year. Similarly, climate-fueled crises too often take an adverse toll on access to clean drinking water while simultaneously undermining agriculture productivity which can jeopardize global food security.
Likewise, the physical toll of climate change on the built environment can undermine the integrity of infrastructure such as coastal housing and businesses, grain storage facilities and shipping ports, increasing budget costs for underdeveloped and developing nations. Such expenditures can impact local economies and have repercussions on global supply chains.
1.5°C threshold in crisis
Dubbed by the UN as an era “standing on the brink of calamity,” global warming is expected to exceed the 1.5°C threshold by 2035 and faces a 2.5°C increase in warming by the year 2100 if efforts to tackle climate change remain at their current pace.
To put into perspective what a 2.0°C increase in global warming could signify for the earth as we know it, sea level rises could increase by 0.66 feet (0.2 meters), resulting in increased flooding of nearly 70% of the earth’s coastlines. In the last decade alone, the rate of sea level rise has already doubled. Conversely, subtropic regions, including large areas encompassing Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and India are expected to lose one-third of their fresh water sources, only to further intensify and elongate heat waves, jeopardizing food security and overall human health and wellbeing.
For life below the water, also known as SDG 14, a 2°C increase in global temperatures would be even more dire. Ocean warming and acidification could result in a nearly 99% loss of the world’s coral reefs. In addition to supporting nearly a quarter of all marine species, healthy coral reefs are also important for coastal communities as they act as a barrier for coastlines during storms, reducing wave impacts on shore.
The urgency of COP28 in providing immediate solutions – and funding
SDG 13- Take Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change and its Impacts, remains a top priority, particularly as we approach the upcoming 28th edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly referred to as COP28, to be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, later this year. The COP28 leadership, led by Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, President-Designate for COP28, is aiming to encourage real-world solutions to close the missing gaps to ensure Agenda 2030 meets its aims. Dr. Al Jaber recently urged global governments, industry, and stakeholders to “disrupt business as usual,” noting the incremental steps taken so far to tackle climate change have not met the “urgency of the moment.”
The COP28 will be the first United Nations climate conference to conduct a Global Stocktake of the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The decisions to be taken following this comprehensive review of what countries have done to prevent the earth’s tipping point will also serve as an accelerated roadmap to meet the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs.
SDG Progress – a path for hope
While the world around us appears somber in many respects, it’s important to highlight the SDG progress that has been made and to build upon those achievements; otherwise, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been.”
SDG 3 – Good Health and Well Being has made substantial headway in reducing child mortality rates, particularly Target 3.2, which calls for ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age by 2030. Out of 200 countries analyzed, 146 have already met or are on track to meet the under-5 mortality target. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), child mortality rates can be further decreased if expectant and new mothers, along with their children, are provided with access to basic lifesaving interventions, including skilled midwives present during childbirth, both postnatal care and pediatric treatment for common childhood diseases, and improved accessibility to childhood vaccinations.
Likewise, similar achievements have been made in the field of HIV treatments, which has led to a decrease in global AIDS-related deaths by 52% since 2010. Such substantial progress is linked to SDG Target 3.3, which calls to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, waterborne diseases and other communicable diseases by 2030. As a result of prevention in the form of outreach, education, and awareness campaigns, paired with medical breakthroughs in antiretroviral therapy, living with HIV has become a manageable chronic health condition, allowing those diagnosed to continue living healthy and longer lives.
Expedient measures to eradicate Hepatitis B have also been successful, with a 90% reduction in new infections across the European Union. Efforts to vaccinate infants across Africa are also improving. In 2019, the 47 member-states of the WHO African Region (AFR) accounted for nearly 66% of all new chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. By 2021, all 47 AFR members had successfully administered a 3 dose-regimen of the hepatitis B vaccine to infants.
In addition to the progress on global health, the world has also become a little ‘brighter’ for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. From 2015 to 2021, 800 million people globally gained access to electricity, equal to 91% of the population. Electrification for the world’s neediest has improved the quality of life in a myriad of ways. Increased access to electricity, particularly in underdeveloped regions, helps to bridge inequalities and create more inclusive communities that are then able to further contribute to the global economy.
Besides providing increased basic comfort for households and broader access to online information, including educational opportunities, electrification improves the quality of healthcare services and facilities. Refrigerated vaccines and medicines can be more easily administered, and healthcare providers are better able to screen patients through the use of x-ray machines and other critical imaging procedures, including ultrasounds and mammograms, providing a substantially better quality of life to entire communities.
A Rescue Plan for People and Planet
As progress towards Agenda 2030 reaches its mid-way point, ensuring an equitable and sustainable future for all will undoubtedly remain an uphill battle. Currently, 1.1 billion people, approximately 18% of the global population, live in acute multidimensional poverty across 110 countries, while nearly 680 million people, equal to 8% of the population, will be facing hunger by the end of this decade. Likewise, at the current rate, estimates predict it will take 140 years to achieve gender parity in managerial positions. Addressing the High-Level Political Forum during Day 1 of the SDG Summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres pleaded with world leaders, stating, “Instead of leaving no one behind, we risk leaving the SDGs behind. . .the SDGs need a global rescue plan.”
Global leaders in attendance adopted a sweeping 10-page Political Declaration, reaffirming their commitment to end poverty and hunger across the globe, combat inequalities, and help develop and sustain just and inclusive societies. Taking into consideration that a lack of sufficient funding remains central to most development crises, the Political Declaration specified the urgency of reforming the current “outdated, dysfunctional and unfair international financial architecture” to further mobilize SDG aims and allow for the ability to respond to urgent global needs, along with those on the horizon. With only 15% of the SDGs on track as we approach 2030, scaling up financing for sustainable development is vital. As a result, the Political Declaration reiterated members support in providing a stimulus of $500 billion annually, which Guterres labeled as a “game-changer” to fast-track SDG progress.
During the Day 1 Planetary Segment meeting, Azali Assoumani, President of Comoros, who spoke as Chairperson for the African Union (AU), noted that the trajectory of achieving the SDGs has been hindered due to a multitude of global crises, including the continuing effects of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and the current climate crisis. Yet despite the fact that even before the pandemic, Africa maintained positive growth rates, such progress remained insufficient to achieve its SDG targets. President Assoumani added that the successful implementation of the SDGs will depend on the availability of resources allocated to mobilize efforts, calling for “brave policies, targeted investments, and concerted action to transform aspirations into tangible results.”
Likewise, during the Leaders Dialogue 1: Scaling up Actions to Accelerate SDG Progress meeting, Peter Pavel, President of the Czech Republic, who spoke on behalf of Pathfinders for Peace, Just, and Inclusive Societies, reminded his fellow leaders that there is “no better blueprint” for achieving peace and prosperity than the 2030 Agenda and ‘no greater catalyst’ than SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions, adding the critical importance of restoring the social contract between a government and its people.
In order to make the next seven years truly count, a systematic shift must occur in commitments to bridge the gaps in financing for vulnerable and developing countries, along with increased multilateral and global partnerships to accelerate joint SDG action by 2030. Acknowledging that climate change remains one of the greatest threats to humanity, the adverse effects of global warming disproportionately impact developing, vulnerable countries, through no fault of their own.
For instance, Africa contributes the least to global greenhouse gas emissions yet remains the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts. The declaration added that mitigation and adaptation efforts represent an “immediate and urgent priority’ paving the way for COP28 to solidify financial, technical and capacity-building support gaps. If left unchecked, the physical and environmental burdens of climate change will continue to undermine the minimal gains achieved in sustainable development progress and seriously obstruct further SDG advancement.
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