19 September 2019
Global Sustainable Development Report Depicts Humanity at a Crossroads
Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash
story highlights

In seeking to identify specific areas for “rapid, transformational change,” the GSDR draws on existing knowledge from numerous disciplines to understand the "hyperconnected" nature of the 17 SDGs.

The report was written by 15 scientists to inform the upcoming SDG Summit, and wwill be officially presented to UN Member States during the opening session on 24 September 2019.

The six entry points for action outlined in the report are accompanied by a total of 20 calls to action by the group of independent scientists.

11 September 2019: The UN released a report written by 15 scientists to inform the upcoming SDG Summit, where Heads of State and Government will consider four years of progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report brings together scientific evidence from around the world to illuminate how action taken immediately – or not taken – will determine the existence of humanity, stressing the need to become more strategic about multiplying the effects of actions.

The 141-page report titled, ‘The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development,’ was authored by an independent group of scientists appointed in December 2016. The scientists were supported by a task team of representatives from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA); the 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 authors presented the GSDR to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 10 September 2019, as well as to UN General Assembly (UNGA) President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces. They briefed the press and publicly released the report on 11 September. It will be officially presented to UN Member States during the opening session of the SDG Summit, on 24 September 2019.

A key message of the report is that the world has become hyperconnected in the past 20 years, making the issues covered by the 17 SDGs highly interlinked. This brings both co-benefits to pursuing each Goal as well as trade-offs, as policies aimed at advancing one Goal can threaten another.

We stand at a crossroads of continuing to tick boxes or choosing a more strategic approach.

For example, some of the authors explained during the press briefing, scaling up the existing agricultural system will feed more people, provide more jobs and bring more people out of poverty. But it would also drive biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and water consumption, which would be incompatible with SDGs 6, 13 and 15, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Instead, efforts should address the fact that one third of food being produced is wasted, and that current diets and food systems do not prioritize nutritional quality.

Peter Messerli, co-chair of the independent group of scientists and Director of the Center for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland, explained that, “we stand at a crossroads of continuing to tick boxes” – the SDG targets, or choosing a more systemic approach that multiplies effects.

The authors stress that sustainable development will not come about by an accidental compromise among sectors. It will only happen with actions that specifically focus on making the best use of co-benefits to accelerate broad progress, and deliberately avoid tradeoffs. The report provides guidance on “handling the winners and losers” of each change.

Jean-Paul Moatti, member of the group of scientists and CEO of the Research Institute for Development (IRD) in France, said during the press briefing that a “total scientific and economic consensus” has emerged that reducing inequality is key for efficient, sustainable growth. Ensuring equality means addressing the concentration of wealth and the upper level, and he said that the GSDR represents “the first time that a UN report says this so clearly.”

In seeking to identify specific areas for “rapid, transformational change,” the GSDR draws on existing knowledge from numerous disciplines, including indigenous knowledge, and points to “state-of-the-art knowledge for transformations.” The report presents four levers of change: governance, economy and finance, individual and collective action, and science and technology. These levers can trigger change in six areas, termed “entry points,” which the authors describe as systems that underlie the SDGs. The entry points are:

  • Strengthening human well-being and capabilities;
  • Shifting towards sustainable and just economies;
  • Building sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition patterns;
  • Achieving energy decarbonization and universal access to energy;
  • Promoting sustainable urban and peri-urban development; and
  • Securing the global environmental commons.

In the report, each entry point is followed by several specific calls to action. For example, under ‘Securing the global environmental commons,’ the scientists call on governments to accurately assess environmental externalities and change patterns of use through pricing, transfers, regulation and other instruments.

A final key point made by the authors both in the report and in the press briefing is that “powerful, vested interests” do not want to see change. Making the hard choices needed in a narrow window of time will require strong political leadership as well as “novel collaborations” with all types of stakeholders. This message is echoed in the prologue to the report by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, who writes that courage is needed to “confront the vested political, business and economic interests that seek to maintain the current unequal order.”

Messages prefacing the report stress the high stakes of undertaking transformational change as quickly as possible. In the foreword to the report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres writes that “our world as we know it and the future we want are at risk,” and SDG implementation must be dramatically stepped up. The report’s preface by the head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Liu Zhenmin, says “we are at risk of irreversibly degrading the natural systems that sustain us.”

Shantanu Mukherjee, Chief of DESA’s Integrated Policy and Analysis Branch, said at the press briefing that the pace at which nature is being degraded by human activity, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, is threatening to push the world to its tipping points, after which it will be altered beyond recognition, with too little time to adapt. It is possible to turn this around within our current capacities, but we need to start now, he underlined.

UNDP welcomed the report in a statement on 11 September, with Executive Director Achim Steiner highlighting that “a far more optimistic future is still attainable” with drastic changes to development policies, incentives and actions. He called for devising policies to manage difficult tradeoffs, informed by the interconnections between each SDG and the concrete systems that define society. [Publication: The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development] [DESA press release] [UN News story] [Previous SDG Knowledge Hub coverage of GSDR]

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