Policy actions that build on synergies and impact multiple SDGs must be prioritized if we are to keep our promise by 2030.
Reaching those farthest behind and reducing inequalities must be the focus of policy, especially in light of recent crises.
The green transformation must be accelerated in a way that protects and includes people.
The environment and human well-being are deeply interlinked, and human progress must incorporate stewardship of the planet.
By UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)
In 2015, the SDGs were agreed as an integrated and indivisible set of Goals that cannot be achieved one at a time or in siloes. The recently released ‘Report of the Secretary-General on Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals’ finds that only about 12% of SDG targets are on track to be achieved by 2030, with failures across all three dimensions of sustainability. The promise to leave no one behind is faltering against rising poverty and hunger, and a triple planetary crisis with consequences that are most severe for the most vulnerable.
The UN Secretary-General has called on governments to advance concrete, integrated, and targeted policies to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and end the war on nature, with a particular focus on advancing the rights of women and girls and empowering the most vulnerable.
Policy actions that serve as multipliers, leveraging the interlinkages among Goals and targets, are needed to advance progress across the SDGs. National priorities and contexts will determine the precise mix of policies and interventions but balancing human well-being and the stewardship of nature is crucial for success.
Leaving no one behind
The slow progress on the SDGs is much more damaging for some – women and girls, vulnerable and marginalized populations, including persons with disabilities, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, and Indigenous Peoples. Prioritizing the well-being of people left farthest behind is important in its own right, but it can also create large positive spillovers.
For example, despite many developing countries facing high financing costs, it is sensible to invest in social protection systems. The long-term benefits far outweigh the immediate costs. In the face of multiple crises – including increasing intensity of climate disasters – social protection provides much needed insurance against poverty, protecting gains towards the SDGs. This is especially important at times of increased vulnerability, including early childhood, parenthood, disability, and old age. Social protection that covers those who need it the most – such as people working informal jobs, particularly women – can also reduce inequality. It can also spur economic growth by boosting consumption.
Advancing gender equality and empowering women and girls would unlock progress across the SDGs. Studies show that gender parity in labor force participation would do more to sustain economies in ageing, low-fertility societies than other policies. But the reality is that even when women join the labor force, they get the short end of the stick. They make half as much as men do and carry a disproportionate share of the care burden at home. A shake up of discriminatory laws and norms and targeted support for realizing women’s full potential through measures and quotas are needed.
Realizing the immense promise of new technologies for the SDGs requires closing the digital divide. At 95%, access to mobile broadband (3G or above) is one of the most successful areas of SDG progress. Yet, in sub-Saharan Africa, 18% of the population lacks access. Besides access, all groups must be able to participate in the development of a digital future. Broad partnerships with the private sector, the scientific community, and civil society can help deliver the benefits while building guardrails to prevent some of the damaging fallouts of digital technologies.
Ending the war on nature
Air, water, land, and ecosystems are foundations for life. Achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change depends on safeguarding these resources for sustainability, equality, and justice. If the current trajectory towards climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and the degradation of ecosystems goes unaddressed, progress on the SDGs could unravel, exacerbating hunger, poverty, conflict, natural disasters, and public health emergencies.
As the warmer season begins, wildfires and polluted and smoky air conditions in North America are the latest ominous sign. Much of the world already faces these conditions. Human well-being is intimately connected to the protection of the environment and nature. It is not too late to take steps to limit warming to under 1.5°C and prevent the most disastrous scenarios that could result from climate change. It is imperative that we work to reduce risks from disasters and build integrated and sustainable food, water, and sanitation systems, while making the right to a healthy environment a reality for all people.
The global transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy must be accelerated, as proposed in the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Acceleration Agenda, while securing climate justice for those on the frontlines of the climate crisis. To ensure a just transition, social protection, job transitions, and inclusion of voices from impacted economic sectors will be crucial. Managing the transformation well by leveraging synergies can be a win-win, for example, by creating 24-25 million new jobs, against the 6 million to 7 million jobs that will be lost.
Limiting the devastating impacts from climate change on life, health, housing, and livelihoods must be the focus. Integrating risk considerations in policy and planning can help manage the consequences of shocks. Ensuring universal coverage of multi-hazard early warning systems by 2027 is a key step.
It is time to recognize our deep reliance on nature and biodiversity and to prioritize our role as stewards of the planet and its resources. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, recently adopted at the culmination of the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference, represents a landmark agreement by governments to guide actions and funding to safeguard nature, protect indigenous rights, and sustainably manage other critical resources by 2030.
Recognizing how the SDGs interconnect can help us find solutions to the multitude of interconnected crises we face. Food security, access to water and sanitation, and higher and secure standards of living cannot be achieved unless we make decisions in balance, carefully managing planetary pressures. Coordinated policy actions, backed by strong political will, are needed to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and end the war on nature.
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This article is the second in a five-part series by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), published in partnership with IISD. Focusing on the SDG Progress Report special edition themed, ‘Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet,’ the series puts forth areas of collective action necessary to turn things around so we can deliver on the promise of the 2030 Agenda.