The UN has released an advance version of the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on SDG progress. The report will inform discussions during the July 2021 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

The 2021 edition of ‘Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals’ is based on available data on the global indicators for the 17 SDGs, as of April 2021. The report notes that the global SDG database includes more indicators than ever before, with 211 (out of 231) indicators available in 2021, up from 115 in 2016. 

Clean and sustainable energy should be at the heart of the COVID-19 response and fight against climate change.

The report begins by stressing that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, SDG progress was not on track. Progress towards the Goals was not occurring fast enough for achievement by 2030, and was even stalled or moving backwards in some areas. According to the report, the world’s collective response in the next 18 months will determine whether the pandemic turns out to be a “much-needed wake-up call.” Among other lessons, it has confirmed that “by threatening biodiversity, humanity threatens its own survival.”

The authors suggest that an appropriate response would:

  • Provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, to strengthen the financial position of developing countries and embrace a recovery that is guided by the 2030 Agenda;
  • Use the recovery to adopt low-carbon, resilient and inclusive development pathways that will reduce carbon emissions, conserve natural resources, create better jobs, advance gender equality and tackle growing inequities;
  • Improve availability of internationally comparable data on SDGs to fill gaps related to geographic coverage, timeliness and the level of disaggregation, to help identify differences across regions and who is being left behind; and
  • Put clean and sustainable energy “at the heart of the COVID-19 response and fight against climate change.”

The report includes several paragraphs on the status of each SDG. On Goal 1 (no poverty), the report warns that ending poverty by 2030 is out of reach due to the “triple threat of COVID-19, conflict and climate change,” unless governments immediately implement substantial policy actions, including social protection systems.

On Goal 2 (zero hunger), it reports that the pandemic might have pushed an additional 83-132 million into chronic hunger in 2020, and multiple forms of malnutrition are a problem in countries around the world.

On Goal 3 (good health and wellbeing), the report finds that essential health services are still disrupted in 90% of countries. The most affected include services for: mental, neurological, and substance use disorders; neglected tropical diseases; tuberculosis; HIV and hepatitis B and C; cancer and other non-communicable diseases; and family planning and contraception.

On Goal 4 (quality education), the authors describe COVID-19 as a “generational catastrophe” for children’s learning and wellbeing. The most vulnerable children and those unable to access remote learning, the report says, are at an increased risk of not returning to school, and even child marriage or child labor.

On Goal 5 (gender equality), the pandemic has led to intensified trends in violence against women and girls, increased child marriage, and disproportionate effects on women of increased care work at home. According to the report, however, the crisis presents a chance to re-make systems, laws, policies, and institutions in ways that advance gender equality.

On Goal 10 (reduced inequalities), the report notes that for the poorest countries, SDG progress is being pushed back a full ten years because of the pandemic. In 2020 refugees were at the highest number on record.

On Goal 12 (responsible consumption and production), the authors explain that unsustainable production and consumption is driving “the three planetary crises: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and the pollution crisis.” Recovery from COVID-19 allows for exploring more inclusive and equitable development models, to begin the necessary process of decoupling economic growth and human well-being from resource use and environmental impacts.

On Goal 13 (climate action), the report reiterates that global CO2 emissions must reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit warming to .5°C above pre-industrial levels as called for in the Paris Agreement. Greenhouse gases (GHG) increased in 2020 around the world, despite changes to typical patterns during lockdown periods of the pandemic. 

On Goal 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), the authors report that rights and protection systems have been “shattered” in some countries, and weakened in many others.

On Goal 17 (partnership for the Goal), the report finds that foreign direct investment is expected to drop by 40%. This and other factors are shrinking countries’ ability to make critical investments in recovery, climate change, and the SDGs. [Publication: Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Report of the Secretary-General (Advance, unedited copy)] [Publication: Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Report of the Secretary-General (E/2021/58) (30 April 2021)]