9 January 2020
It’s Time to Talk about Expectations for Super Year 2020
story highlights

This year, the SDGs on gender, climate, the ocean, life below water and on land, and responsible consumption and production, as well as on means of implementation, will have their moment to shine.

Actors also will be able to look clearly upon the processes and institutions they rely on to drive change, and decide whether they are enough to slow the existential crises with which 2020 has begun.

It is time to look for the opportunities to "change course" in an effort to reach crucial goals.

Global advocacy groups have nicknamed 2020 a “super year” for activism and action, highlighting the 21 SDG targets that are expiring in under 12 months and the need to set the course for achieving the 2030 Agenda in its remaining decade. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed calls 2020, “the year we must change course,” and hopes to set off a Decade of Action for implementing the SDGs.

This year, the SDGs on gender, climate, the ocean, life below water and on land, and responsible consumption and production, as well as on means of implementation, will have their moment to shine. It is hoped they can then light the pathway forward. Actors also will be able to look clearly upon the processes and institutions they rely on to drive change, and decide whether they are enough to slow the existential crises with which 2020 has begun.

The culminating intergovernmental event of 2019 – the Chile/Madrid Climate Change Conference – ended with mixed results, raising questions about our tools for collectively addressing global challenges.

It is time to look for the opportunities to change course in an effort to reach crucial global goals.

Gender Equality (SDG 5)

The 25th anniversary of the Beijing Programme of Action promises a spotlight on women’s rights in 2020. The question is whether the review process leading up to the milestone will yield more effective action.

The 64th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March will provide a forum for assessing progress 25 years after governments adopted the Beijing Programme of Action. At the end of the year, the UN General Assembly will hold a high-level meeting on 23 September 2020 to mark the Beijing+25 anniversary.

We anticipate that governments that prioritize the CSW may send even larger and higher-level delegations than usual to this year’s session. The September gathering is also expected to receive attention from ministers and heads of state.

The UN regions are conducting a series of preparatory stocktaking events to inform these milestones with meetings for Europe and Africa in October and the Asia-Pacific and Arab regions in November.

Gender equality is also among the focus areas for the President of the UNGA’s 74th session, who has announced plans to promote it in the context of inclusion, as well as women’s role and perspective in peace and security matters. A review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture will be an opportunity for Member States to realize this ideal.

The global #MeToo movement that began in 2017 has made its way around the world. It has influenced the UN, which has seen public accusations of officials and staff at UN Women, UNAIDS, and in peacekeeping missions. The issue was a focus during the 73rd UNGA by then-President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcia. She described discrimination against women leaders as “political violence.” Will such signs of cultural shifts pervade discussions on Beijing’s success, and embolden governments to make stronger commitments? If so, recent studies indicate that greater gender equality could drive progress on other SDGs.

Climate Action (SDG 13) 

The UNFCCC’s meetings in Madrid (COP 25) concluded with an undeniable atmosphere of frustration, according to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin’s team on the ground. Their analysis of the meeting notes that two “disconnects” undermined the meeting: 1) between the demands of people and science, and what the process could deliver, and 2) between countries that want to look to the future, and those focused on the past. The unresolved issues include Article 6 (market and non-market mechanisms for mitigating GHG emissions), common time frames, long-term finance, transparency issues for the Paris Agreement, report of the Adaptation Committee, and report of the Consultative Group of Experts.

When COP 26 convenes in Glasgow, UK in 2020, it will be under the mantle of the “ambition COP,” but the expectations for this ambition undoubtedly will be adjusted following the gaps that “undermined progress at COP 25, and arguably harmed the reputation of the UNFCCC,” according to ENB.

Launchpads for this event – which will tell us the level of actual global ambition needed to keep temperature rise below dangerous levels – will be the submission of updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are due in early 2020. The Chilean and UK COP Presidencies have pledged to submit new NDCs with greater ambition in early 2020, in an effort to lead by example.

Another space to watch in regard to climate policy will be the first global conference on sustainable transport in May 2020. Transport is a unique topic in sustainability, as it underscores the interlinked nature of the SDGs with particular relevance to Goals 7, 9, 11 and 13. As such, the conference could yield helpful lessons on leveraging other SDG interlinkages for overall progress.

Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12)

The preparations for the next meeting of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM), which is expected to take place in October 2020, will also consider 2020 and post-2020 targets. The ICCM undertakes periodic reviews of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which is a policy framework to promote chemical safety around the world.

An Open-Ended Working Group for SAICM, as a subsidiary body to the ICCM, has been considering the implementation, development and enhancement of SAICM, and is expected to conclude its work in 2020. SAICM was developed by a multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral Preparatory Committee and supports the achievement of the 2020 goal that was adopted by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Life Below Water and on Land (SDGs 14 and 15)

2020’s special role as a ‘Biodiversity Super Year’ comes at a crucial time, according to recent evidence – and in fact may be only arriving as signs point to emergency. The stark reporting of the ‘Global Assessment of the State of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ published in May 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concluded that a million species are threatened with extinction and nature is in serious decline due to human activities.

The international community will use the IPBES report’s findings as momentum in 2020, especially as the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 closes and the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) take stock of their successes and their failures in reaching the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The year will also lay plain the links between the CBD and 2030 Agenda, as 12 of the 21 SDG targets set to expire in 2020 derive from the Aichi Targets, with a 2020 deadline.

Lending to this moment of urgent stocktaking and agenda setting, biodiversity-related UN decades will open and close. 2020 will mark the end of the Decade on Biodiversity as well as the Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification, led by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Meanwhile the Decade for Plant Health will commence, complimented by, in 2021, the beginning of UN Decades on Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and on Ecosystem Restoration.

The international community also will be making time for the second UN Ocean Conference. Following the first UN Ocean Conference in New York, US in 2017, this one will take place in Portugal with Kenya as co-host. The Conference will serve as an institutional stocktaking point for SDG 14. Communities of Ocean Action launched at the first meeting have been working in the interim on ocean acidification and several other issues.

Also in June 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature will hold the World Conservation Congress in Marseille, France. Organized once every four years, with 10,000+ participants, this event will magnify civil society’s voice as the CBD progresses towards its COP. Élisabeth Borne, French Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition said of the event, “We must make this event into the springboard towards the COP15.” Meanwhile, Grethel Aguilar, IUCN Acting Director General sounded the nature call, saying “We need healthy nature to create a just world without poverty …”

The UNGA will formally take up the “nature” issue when it hosts a high-level ‘Nature Summit’ in September 2020. This meeting will add momentum to the framework negotiations a month before CBD COP 15 meets under the theme, ‘Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” and seeks to adopt its strategy through 2050.  

Means of Implementation (SDG 17)

Technology and data are two components of SDG 17 that will rise to the surface in 2020. As so-called means of implementation for the entire 2030 Agenda, there is an expectation that investing in these two areas can ensure stronger results for sustainable development.

Goal 17 contains the 19 targets – the greatest number of any of the SDGs, by far. It is the only one divided into sub-goals, which are: Finance, Technology, Capacity Building, Trade and Systemic Issues. At least two of these have annual stock-taking sessions, including discussions to foster new ideas and partnerships.

On finance, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will hold its annual Financing for Development Forum from 20-23 April 2020, immediately following the annual spring meetings in Washington, DC of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The Development Cooperation Forum (DCF) is another ECOSOC mechanism, one that meets every other year, and will convene in 2020 on 14-15 May.

The DCF is the principal global platform for policy dialogue on development cooperation. It works to provide concrete policy guidance on enhancing development cooperation in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development (FfD). The Forum aims to boost the quantity, quality and impact of aid, among other goals.

Two of the high-level meetings in September 2019 revealed a critical issue for financing to meet the SDGs and survive climate change in the coming decade: how small island states – among the most vulnerable countries in the world – are supported through times of disaster and rebuilding. The UNGA’s high-level dialogue on FfD and the stocktaking meeting on the SAMOA Pathway both made indelible impressions that without finding a new approach to SIDS’ debt, aid and loans conditions, the entire global community is in peril.

The month of May 2020 also features a series of meetings on technology. The UNGA will hold a high-level thematic debate on 11 May on the impact of rapid technological change on the SDGs. This is mandated in a resolution on this topic adopted in 2018. UNGA President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande has indicated that he will convene the debate with a focus on “gaps in digital education and access to technology, which undermines the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the role of technology for quality education, and take stock of the developments within the UN system.”

The next two days are devoted to the annual UN Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs (STI Forum), held under the auspices of ECOSOC. The third World Data Forum will convene in Bern, Switzerland, in October 2020.

The sum effect of these “means of implementation” meetings should be to measurably increase the capacity of governments and the international community to achieve the SDGs. Will it work? If it doesn’t, the way the UN approaches these meetings will be under scrutiny by several stocktaking processes happening in parallel throughout the year.

Stepping Back

On top of the issue-specific spotlights that illuminate the 2020 calendar, the year is also one for the broadest stocktaking the international community has had in years, as the UN leads a “global conversation” about ways the UN can overcome its shortcomings.

The 2030 Agenda has a check-up process built into its founding mandates: the annual meetings of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) under ECOSOC’s auspices. Each July the HLPF session considers progress towards the overall 2030 Agenda and its 17 SDGs through discussions on a selected theme, reflections on results of global stocktaking reports based on statistical information from around the world, and close looks at how implementation is proceeding for a few dozen specific countries. In addition, every four years the UN General Assembly convenes a summit-level HLPF session where heads of state and government exchange views on progress toward the 2030 Agenda overall.

While the HLPF serves to assess the world’s seriousness in tackling the problems captured by the 2030 Agenda, the HLPF is itself the subject of review in the coming year. The UNGA will conduct a review of how well the Forum has worked since it began review SDG implementation in 2016. The UNGA President will appoint co-facilitators to lead these discussions, expected to begin in early 2020.

Assuming the international community can avoid stocktaking fatigue, a global conversation will run alongside the other meetings and negotiations in the first half of 2020. The UN Secretariat has initiated this conversation in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the organization’s establishment.

Finally, in the context of that 75th anniversary event, the UN Secretariat will organize the first annual SDG “moment,” falling at the five-year mark of the SDGs’ adoption. The annual moment is called for in the declaration that emerged from the SDG Summit in September 2019.

So, just how full will the UN’s agenda be as it embarks on its 75th year? We close with the emerging lineup of events during the opening of the 75th year of the UN, all of which will be informed by events leading up to them. As heads of state arrive for the general debate that opens on 22 September 2020, they will also have a menu of other high-level events to choose from. The Nature Summit will have special emphasis for many, as the 2020 targets of the SDGs, most of which focus on environmental protection, near their deadline. In addition, the UN will mark its 75th anniversary. Whether during this high-level event or as the UNGA’s general debate gets underway, the UN also will mark the first annual “SDG moment” announced by the UN Secretary-General in response to the political declaration adopted by leaders at the SDG Summit in 2019. This is expected to take stock, nearly five years into the 2030 Agenda, of progress towards the Goals and provide a push for acceleration in the decade of delivery. And the UNGA will commemorate 25 years of effort for gender equality through the Bejing+25 anniversary.

In short, 2020 is packed with possibilities to be a super year. We will be watching and reporting on how it plays out.  

Faye Leone, Lauren Anderson, Lynn Wagner

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