As we write this forecast in the first month of 2019, the world has less than 12 years remaining to achieve the ambitions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we also have less than 12 years left to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C, and that window of opportunity is closing fast. How will the multilateral community use the next few months to get as far as possible towards its agreed destinations, or as it is now argued, our survival?

Much of the work around the SDGs during the first half of 2019 will be framed as preparations for the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) session in July, with a further horizon of the first summit-level event to take stock of the entire 2030 Agenda in September 2019. Ahead of these gatherings, stakeholders, policymakers and experts will meet for thematic preparations on the SDGs under review at the July HLPF. These preparations will include a series of expert group meetings (EGMs) on the respective Goals, which began with the EGM on SDG 4 (quality education) in December 2018. The remaining meetings are expected to convene in March and April in cities around the world, as follows:

  • SDG 10 (reduced inequalities): 27-28 March 2019, Accra, Ghana;
  • SDG 13 (climate action): 1-3 April 2019, Copenhagen, Denmark;
  • SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions): 3-5 April, Rome, Italy;
  • SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth): 4-5 April, Geneva, Switzerland; and
  • SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals): 12 April, New York, US.

SDG 13’s prep meeting will mark the first major moment in a series of efforts that could make 2019 the year of concretely uniting climate action with the sustainable development agenda. Other themes that will set 2019 apart include a focus on linkages between human rights and the 2030 Agenda, driven in part by the HLPF’s consideration of SDG 10, as well as the theme of the July HLPF: ‘Empowering People and Ensuring Inclusiveness and Equality.’ Picking up on this theme to start the year is a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on dialogue and cooperation on human rights and the 2030 Agenda, on 16 January. Another key topic in 2019 is the review of the financing for development (FfD) agenda, taking the form of a High-level Dialogue in September 2019, and a push for strengthening the means of implementation for the SDGs, which could be the subject of much informal discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later in January. That conversation will pick up at the UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) Forum on FfD Follow-up in April.

Other preparations for the HLPF include the issuing of three progress reports on the Goals: one from the UN Secretary-General, one from the UN Statistics Division and one from the SDSN-Bertelsmann Stiftung. A fourth, more science-based report is under preparation for the September HLPF meeting – the Global Sustainable Development Report.

Regional preparations will take place in the annual sustainability forums organized by each UN regional commission, also in March and April:

  • UNECE: 21-22 March, in Geneva, Switzerland;
  • ESCAP: 27-29 March, in Bangkok, Thailand;
  • UNECA: 16-18 April, in Morocco;
  • ESCWA: 16-18 April, in Beirut, Lebanon; and
  • ECLAC: 22-23 April, in Santiago, Chile.

For the 51 countries presenting voluntary national reviews (VNRs) in July 2019, the UN is planning preparatory workshops following a general preparatory workshop that convened in Geneva in late 2018. In parallel to all of the preparations for the July HLPF session, the first half of 2019 will also require UN Member States to negotiate the political declaration that will be adopted at the September HLPF, the ‘SDG Summit.’

The year 2019 will also be marked by UN high-level engagement in galvanizing climate action. The Secretary-General indicated in his New Year’s message that it is “time to stop uncontrolled and spiraling climate change.” Culminating in the 2019 UN Climate Summit, which is to be convened by the Secretary-General on 23 September, immediately prior to the HLPF at the level of Heads and State and Government, a series of high-level meetings on climate change will bring renewed focus to SDG 13. In the first six months of 2019, we will bring you coverage of the First Global Conference on Synergies between the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement convening as the EGM on SDG 13 in April, the 49th session of the IPCC in May and the 50th sessions of the UNFCCC Subsidiary Bodies, among other meetings.

The IPCC’s findings have ramped up the urgency of Parties’ national actions as well. According to the IPCC, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions need to decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050. To that end, Parties to the Paris Agreement on climate change with a nationally determined contribution (NDC) timeframe up to 2030 are expected to communicate a new, more ambitious contribution, or update their existing contributions by 2020.

Another issue to track during early 2019 is the fact that UN reforms are now operational. The Secretary-General began 2019 with a video address to staff in which he marked the “go live” of a widespread set of UN reforms distinguishing 2018 – a year of “critical decisions” – from 2019, “a year of action,” and saying that with the new year also comes “a new United Nations.” He noted that the reforms bring four new departments into existence, a new development system that positions the UN to better help countries achieve the SDGs, and a fortified peace and security architecture. He also highlighted a major decentralization and reduction in bureaucracy for the Organization, thanks to a new management paradigm that emphasizes transparency, accountability and better mandate implementation.

Looking at the environmental and sustainability landscape more broadly, a key decision-making event in the first few months of 2019 will be the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which takes place every two years. The next session will meet in March 2019, on the topic of ‘Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production.’ It will take up three focus areas: (a) environmental challenges related to poverty and natural resources management, including sustainable food systems, food security and halting biodiversity loss; (b) life cycle approaches to resource efficiency, energy, chemicals and waste management; and (c) innovative sustainable business development at a time of rapid technological change. Preparations for the Assembly and the results of its discussions will help set the agenda for deliberations throughout the year.

The ten most read stories that we published in 2018 indicated that UN reforms, findings in climate science, SDG progress reports and economic forecasts all galvanize the sustainable development community’s attention. The coming year will have no shortage of developments on all of these issue areas, and we will keep you informed as they unfold.

Faye Leone, Elena Kosolapova, and Lynn Wagner