26 March 2019
Once Every Four Years: Member States Await 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report
Photo by Lucas Vasques
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Informal intergovernmental consultations in March addressed how to incorporate the 2019 edition of the Global Sustainable Development Report in the summit-level HLPF meeting in September, and its review of the 2030 Agenda.

Several governments highlighted that the GSDR – which is expected to be released in May – has the potential to inspire discussion, and, called for it to “have some space” in the upcoming conversations.

This policy brief outlines: the background and mandate of the GSDR, the process of developing the 2019 edition, and governments’ recent views on making the most of the report.

UN Member States have begun consulting among themselves to plan for the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) that will convene at the level of Heads of State and Government in September 2019. One topic of discussion at an informal intergovernmental consultation on 15 March 2019 was how to incorporate the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) in the Summit event.

Several governments highlighted that the GSDR – which is expected to be released in May – has the potential to inspire discussion. They called for it to “have some space” in the upcoming conversations at the highest levels of government.

This policy brief outlines: the background and mandate of the GSDR, the process of developing the 2019 edition, and governments’ recent views on making the most of the report.

History of the GSDR

In the outcome of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20), Member States called for the production of a GSDR as a way for the HLPF – which was also established through this outcome document – to “strengthen the science-policy interface through review of documentation bringing together dispersed information and assessments.”

The first editions of the GSDR were produced by a team of UN staff. A prototype of the GSDR was launched in 2014. The 2015 GSDR edition was issued ahead of that year’s HLPF session for delegates’ consideration. The report provided a survey of scientific findings on oceans and livelihoods, sustainable consumption and production (SCP), disaster risk reduction (DRR), industrialization and the use of big data in Africa, among other issues. The SDG Knowledge Hub reported that the 2015 GSDR also used crowd-sourcing techniques to identify new and emerging issues. It found that energy topped the list, followed by natural resource management, governance and climate change. The 2016 GSDR provided an “assessment of assessments” based on HLPF’s theme that year: ‘Ensuring that no one is left behind.’

Two additional agreements shaped the next era in the production of the GSDR. The 2030 Agenda, which was adopted in September 2015, called for the GSDR to inform the HLPF, saying the report should “strengthen the science-policy interface and could provide a strong evidence-based instrument to support policy-makers in promoting poverty eradication and sustainable development.” Nearly a year later, at the July 2016 session of the HLPF, the ministerial declaration (E/HLS/2016/1) called for the GSDR to be produced once every four years, rather than annually, and be timed to inform the HLPF when it convenes under the auspices of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Also by that declaration, governments requested that an independent group of experts be established to draft each report.

Development of 2019 GSDR

The 2019 edition of the report will be the first to be issued by an independent group of experts, and the first that will inform the UN’s quadrennial high-level global reviews of the 2030 Agenda.

In December 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed 15 eminent scientists and experts to draft the 2019 edition of the GSDR. They are:

  • Endah Murniningtyas (Indonesia) (co-chair);
  • Peter Messerli (Switzerland) (co-chair);
  • Wolfgang Lutz (Austria);
  • Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (Belgium);
  • Parfait Ekoundou-Enyegue (Cameroon);
  • Katherine Richardson (Denmark);
  • Eeva Furman (Finland);
  • Jean-Paul Moatti (France);
  • Ernest Foli (Ghana);
  • David Smith (Jamaica);
  • Muhammad Saidam (Jordan);
  • Jurgis Staniskis (Lithuania);
  • Gonzalo Hernández Licona (Mexico);
  • Eun Mee Kim (Republic of Korea); and
  • Amanda Glassman (US).

The scientists are supported by a task team of six UN system entities: the UN Secretariat; UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the UN Environment Programme (UNEP); the UN Development Programme (UNDP); the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); and the World Bank. The report’s preparation is coordinated by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

The group of scientists held a first meeting in New York, US, in February 2017, to identify activities needed to ensure the scientific credibility, legitimacy and relevance of the 2019 GSDR. The second meeting took place from 14-19 July 2017, also in New York, to consider the scope and objectives of the report.

Members of the group then briefed governments and others on their plans for the report. Co-Chair Murniningtyas said the GSDR should focus on an integrated approach, consider countries in special situations, and complement the annual SDG progress report issued by the UN Secretary-General. Co-Chair Messerli said the report’s preparation would include three phases: dialogue; consultation; and writing. He added that the writing phase would be complemented by a peer review phase.

Furman said the report would provide evidence for the various pathways that can lead to sustainable development, and include examples of technologies that could have a positive impact on the SDGs. She said the report will use different sources of knowledge, such as traditional knowledge and knowledge from business and NGOs.

Members of the group explained that the report will take into account the principle of “no one left behind,” consider experiences from all regions, include key messages or recommendations that are policy relevant and based on scientific analysis, and be readable by “as many people as possible.”

In October 2017, the group issued a call for input to the 2019 GSDR, from both scientific and non-scientific communities. They invited inputs on four topics:

  • Interactions among the SDGs and their targets;
  • Transformation pathways towards sustainable development;
  • Looking beyond the SDGs to major issues identified by research that are not explicitly taken into account in the SDGs; and
  • The role of science for sustainable development

In December 2017, the group met in Helsinki, Finland to consider how flows of raw materials between countries and shifts in lifestyles affect sustainability (the Finnish Environment Institute later submitted a GSDR background paper on the circular economy). The group also worked to identify paths that could bring the changes required to achieve the SDGs. Meeting with 20 additional scientists from around the world, the group considered how flows of raw materials between countries and continents and shifts in lifestyles affect sustainability, and possible ways to influence them to move towards sustainable development. These topics were examined especially from the points of view of land use, consumption and production, urbanization and the economy.

In March 2018, the scientists held a meeting focused on population and macroeconomics, and they held an Africa consultation in May 2018, addressing the region’s challenges in SDG implementation. In July 2018, members of the group reported on the status of the report in a side event to the HLPF. They noted consultations with non-scientific actors in addition to scientists, and they emphasized the report’s focus on technological innovation.

Bringing the GSDR into HLPF Summit

The process outlined above brings us to March 2019, when anticipation for the GSDR’s release and ability to inspire discussion around the SDGs is running high. After a round of bilateral consultations with several governments, the facilitator for organizing the HLPF Summit’s activities, Ruben Escalante Hasbun, Permanent Representative of El Salvador, informed Member States of his intentions for setting the Summit’s agenda. He wrote that he intends to make recommendations to the UNGA President based on consultations that, inter alia, take advantage of the GSDR “to inspire discussions.”

During informal consultations with Member States on 15 March, Escalante recalled that in 2015, Member States decided to use the GSDR as a scientific interface about “the gaps in what we are doing, and what we are doing right.” Escalante said the 2019 edition marks “the first time we will have this report at our disposal, and I think it should be one of the inspirations for what we do in our discussions” at the September HLPF.

UN Member States, in turn, shared their views on the report during the interactive consultations. A group of developed countries said the GSDR should be the “backbone” of substantive discussion at the HLPF summit. One delegation said, “something that doesn’t happen every July, but only every four years, is the GSDR” and called for it to guide discussions and “have some space” at the HLPF in September. Another delegation suggesting drawing on the GSDR’s findings to identify cross-cutting themes for discussion, to provide an alternative to structuring the Summit to cover the individual SDGs.

Other delegates expressed support for using the GSDR as a guide for discussions, said the GSDR will help to identify areas where we are lagging behind. He proposed incorporating it into a thematic discussion on “statistics measurements” during the Summit.

The next indication of the GSDR’s role in Summit discussions may come when Escalante presents his recommendations to UNGA President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, possibly in mid-April. If the GSDR is released in May as expected, governments, civil society and academics soon will have much to consider regarding current scientific knowledge on interactions among the SDGs and their targets, transformation pathways towards sustainable development, major issues that are not explicitly taken into account in the SDGs, and the role of science for sustainable development as they consider how to take the next steps to achieve the SDGs.

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