7 January 2020
Our Top 10 Stories of the Decade: Solutions, Surprises, and Rising Stakes
Felton, California, US / Casey Horner
story highlights

As this new decade begins amid high stakes and high hopes, what is on our readers’ minds?

A look back at the ten most-read stories published in the previous decade offers some indications.

The UN began the year 2020 with an invitation to people around the world to express their long-term hopes, against the backdrop of “a warring world and a warming planet.” This was quickly followed by a warning from the UN Secretary-General that we “cannot afford” another war in the Gulf region and then a call to de-escalate tensions. Meanwhile, severe wildfires in Australia are destroying precious wildlife and biodiversity and pushing more species towards extinction.

As this new decade begins with high stakes and high hopes, what is on our readers’ minds? A look back at the ten most-read stories published on the SDG Knowledge Hub in the previous decade offers some indications.

10. 42 Countries to Present VNRs to HLPF 2019 (2 August 2018)

The top ten stories of the decade begin with an update on the countries that would present voluntary national reviews (VNRs) at the 2019 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The list came almost a year before the session would convene, and the list had to be closed – indicating a new level of interest among governments in presenting VNRs.

When the VNR mechanism was established, it was amid concern that governments would largely ignore it, leaving the UN with embarrassingly empty conference rooms during high-level meetings. The pleasant surprise of countries’ eagerness to present VNRs has raised hopes that the HLPF can play an important, effective role in advancing sustainable development implementation around the world.

Readers’ interest in this story may also reflect the particular importance given to the 2019 HLPF as the fourth in the four-year review cycle of the SDGs. The world now looks towards UN Member States’ review of the HLPF in 2020. The support for the VNR process thus far could lead Member States to strengthen the mechanism – and potentially increase real change in countries around the world.

9. IPCC Special Report: Limiting Global Warming to 1.5°C Will Require “Unprecedented” Transitions (9 October 2018)

As reported in the ninth most-read story of the decade, “a half of a degree of warming makes a world of difference.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted this finding following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C in 2018.

The report projected potential climate change impacts and associated risks. It highlighted the grave differences between an average global warming of 1.5°C and that of 2°C by the end of the century. The authors affirmed that limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C was still possible but would require substantial system-wide changes to our energy, agriculture, urban and industrial systems.

The Paris Agreement on climate change includes the goal of limiting the global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C, although critics have expressed concern that the most recent UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties have not consistently adhered to this goal.

8. UNWTO Report Links Sustainable Tourism to 17 SDGs (14 June 2018)

This report was released during the European Development Days as an output of the International Year of Tourism 2017 (IY2017). It spelled out tourism’s interactions with all 17 SDGs – not only the ones that mention sustainable tourism in its targets (SDG target 8.9 on creating jobs, target 12.b on monitoring impacts, and target 14.7 on economic benefits to SIDS and LDCs). It was therefore a concrete explanation of linkages among the various elements of sustainable development, and how they can reinforce each other.

The UNWTO report highlighted that tourism can: spur sustainable agriculture by promoting production, influencing supplies to hotels, and increasing sales of local products to tourists (SDG 2); empower women by providing direct jobs and income generation (SDG 5); bolster investment in water and sanitation-related utilities and other infrastructure, particularly in more sustainable and efficient ways (SDGs 6 and 9); contribute to urban renewal and rural development (SDG 10); and promote preservation of cultural and natural heritage (SDG 11).

7. How Can Progress on Infrastructure, Industry and Innovation Contribute to Achieving the SDGs? (12 July 2017)

This policy brief reviewed progress on SDG 9 and illuminated linkages between this issue and other SDGs, like the report on sustainable tourism above. It also set the stage for that year’s HLPF session, which would consider SDG 9 as part of the first-ever set of “in-depth reviews” of the Global Goals.

The brief drew from the expert and high-level meetings that had taken place leading up to the 2017 HLPF, with a focus on the subjects of industry, innovation and infrastructure. It also incorporated official reports on SDG 9 and underlined the gaps and challenges for its achievement.

The interest in this brief seems to align with more recent calls for the HLPF to better marry in-person political discussions that take place during its annual sessions with the technical inputs prepared throughout the year, to ensure that discussions are well informed and result in meaningful recommendations and guidance for national governments to take forward at home.

6. IPBES Previews 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity (12 February 2019)

Months before the headline “one million species at risk of extinction” grabbed global attention, details about the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service had begun to filter out. Policymakers and thought leaders were thus prepared to receive a substantial study, given the input from over 400 leading experts from 50 countries covering all land-based ecosystems (except Antarctica), inland water and the open oceans.

The report’s findings galvanized what is shaping up to be a “super year” for attention to biodiversity in 2020.

The 14-year gap since the last global biodiversity assessment also contributed to heightened anticipation among policymakers, scientists and the wider sustainable development community. The report’s findings galvanized what is shaping up to be a “super year” for attention to biodiversity in 2020.

5. An Annotated Guide to the UN Secretary-General’s Reform Proposals (23 January 2018)

For the UN system, 2018 was a year of structural change initiated by the UN Secretary-General with broad support from UN Member States, in hopes of better situating the UN to deliver on its mandates. Three streams of reform characterized these changes; our “annotated guide” provided their background, status and next steps.

Since then, the reforms have resulted in, among other changes: a Funding Compact between UN Member States and the UN development system; the transition of the 129 Resident Coordinators from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to the Secretariat to resolve a “historic accountability deficit” in the coordination of the UN development system; the redesign of the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) to serve instead as the UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework; a new generation of UN Country Teams (UNCTs); and restructuring the departments that comprise the UN’s peace and security architecture.

The Secretary-General had also proposed that by the end of 2019, the UN would launch a system-wide online platform for monitoring and reporting on the contributions of the UN system to the SDGs.

4. SDG Report 2018 Finds Conflict, Climate Change, Inequality Hindering Progress (21 June 2018)

This story summarized the UN’s snapshot report of progress on the SDGs, provided to inform the 2018 session of the HLPF. The story identified the issues hindering progress across the 2030 Agenda (conflict, climate change and inequality), and it noted the areas of positive progress highlighted in the report (proportion of people living below the poverty line, under-five mortality and access to electricity).

The story also shared, in one line each, the latest status of each SDG, while also noting the need for even more data to report better.

In its simplicity, the story captured our readers’ need for straightforward, digestible information about progress towards agreed goals for sustainable development. This demand is another element that the upcoming review of the HLPF could take into account as it considers what services the UN should provide to governments and stakeholders as 2030 approaches.

3. World Bank Updates Governance Indicators Data Set (25 September 2018)

In 2018, the World Bank released an updated set of indicators to support countries in measuring several dimensions of governance, defined as the “traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised.” The World Bank’s indicators incorporated perception data and other ways to measure voice and accountability, rule of law, control of corruption, political stability, government effectiveness, and other dimensions.

The popularity of this story likely reflects the challenges many face to reach targets under SDG 16 and to measure progress. When the indicators for the SDG targets were agreed in 2017, many of the indicators for Goal 16 were considered unclear methodologically and lacking in data availability, and were excluded from annual reports of progress on the SDGs (along with other indicators classified as “Tier III”). Since then, UN and stakeholder initiatives have led to improvements in the set of indicators and acceptance for alternative data sources. Currently no Goal 16 indicators remain “Tier III.”

2. China Releases National Plan to Implement SDGs (17 October 2016)

The second-most popular story of the decade comes from 2016, the first year of the SDGs’ adoption, as China announced a national action plan and targets for each of the Goals. China had recently become one of the first countries to present a voluntary national review of SDG implementation (VNR).

China also was the G20 president at the time, and it called on other G20 members to formulate their action plans on the 2030 Agenda. On top of this, China established an interagency mechanism to coordinate implementation of its actions on the Agenda.

1. Kigali Amendment Enters into Force, Bringing Promise of Reduced Global Warming (8 January 2019)

The top story for 2019 was also the top story for the decade. It was about a New Year’s resolution the world “cannot afford to break”: an agreement to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by over 80%.

In the 1980s, HFCs were promoted as alternatives to ozone-depleting substances in cooling equipment, such as refrigerators and air conditioners. However, somewhat ironically perhaps, HFCs are a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) and their role in warming the atmosphere soon emerged as a greater concern.

In 2016, the Parties to the Montreal Protocol adopted an agreement to reduce HFCs at the close of the 28th Meeting of the Parties (MOP 28) in Kigali, Rwanda. This agreement – The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer – entered into force on 1 January 2019, following ratification by 65 countries. Experts estimate reducing the production of HFC can help avoid global warming by up to 0.4°C this century.

This is a story of a success, of a concrete solution, and of addressing one of our most pressing existential crises. We look forward to sharing more such news with you in 2020 and the decade beyond.

Happy New Year.

By Faye Leone, Matthew TenBruggencate

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