This is the year to get the Sustainable Development Goals back on track

2024 is an election year across the world and newly elected governments need to focus on the all-important sustainability issue

Updated - May 04, 2024 01:37 am IST

Published - May 04, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘The present trend, if it continues, will lead to accelerated environmental degradation and the purpose of transiting towards sustainability defeated’

‘The present trend, if it continues, will lead to accelerated environmental degradation and the purpose of transiting towards sustainability defeated’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The United Nations summit on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), that was held in New York (September 18-19), assessed progress towards achieving the SDGs. The Agenda-2030, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, identified 17 SDGs with 169 specific targets to be achieved by 2030. The programme is internationally non-binding, but all countries have committed to work towards these goals as transiting to sustainable development is a common global endeavour.

Slow progress

Progress, according to available reports, is off track. From 2015 to 2019, there were some improvements, although grossly insufficient to achieve the goals. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and other global crises have virtually halted progress. Apart from slow progress, and little or no attention towards the goals related to the environment and biodiversity (including responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, and life on land), it is a matter of great concern that the current practice of pursuing SDGs defies the integrated and indivisible nature of SDGs. We are far from the overarching target of balancing human well-being and a healthy environment. The present trend, if it continues, will lead to accelerated environmental degradation and the purpose of transiting towards sustainability defeated.

Given this emerging scenario, the UN SDG Report, 2023 identified five key areas for urgent action: Commitment of governments to seven years of accelerated, sustained and transformative actions to deliver on the promises of SDGs; concrete, integrated and targeted government policies and actions to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality and to end the war on nature with a focus on advancing the rights of women and girls and empowering the most vulnerable; strengthening of national and subnational capacity, accountability, and public institutions to deliver accelerated progress; recommitment of the international community to deliver and mobilise resources to assist developing nations, and continued strengthening of the UN development system.

World leaders took cognisance of the situation, reaffirmed their commitments and agreed to step-up efforts to deliver SDGs, our global road map out of the crisis, by 2030. But how far these global pronouncements are operative at the ground level remains a big question.

Results that deserve deliberation

A team of 64 scholars analysed 3,000 studies, mostly peer-reviewed published articles across the world to examine ‘Scientific evidence on the political impact of the sustainable development goals’ within national and global governance to address pressing challenges of poverty eradication, social justice and environmental protection. The results, which were published in the journal, Nature Sustainability, September 2022 issue (under the leadership of Professor Frank Biermann of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands), deserve wide deliberations, especially in the context of Agenda 2030 implementation.

The authors look at five dimensions: global governance, domestic political systems, the integration and coherence of institutions and policies, the inclusiveness of governance from local to global level, and the protection of ecological integrity. They concluded that ‘the SDGs thus far have had mainly discursive effects but also have led to some isolated normative and institutional reforms.

However, effects are often diffuse, and there is little evidence that goal setting at the global level leads directly to political impacts in national and local politics. Overall, our assessment indicates that although there are some limited effects of the SDGs, they are not a transformative force in and of themselves’.

In this context, another UN report, ‘Future is Now’ (2019), perhaps provides some guidelines for action. It emphasised that ‘The true transformative potential of the 2030 Agenda can be realised through a systemic approach that helps identify, manage trade-offs while maximising co-benefits.’ By co-benefit the stress is on the activities that, while addressing one SDG, will help address others at the same time. The report suggests adopting locally best suited entry points following regional and national priorities and applying four levers — governance, economy and finance, individual and collective action, and science and technology to propel our actions along the entry points.

Actors from these levers must develop partnership and establish novel collaboration to design and rapidly implement integrated pathways to sustainable development corresponding to the specific needs and priorities of the country. This will ultimately contribute to global transformation. In the prologue to this report, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and renowned for the famous Brundtland report, ‘Our Common Future”, expressed the hope that politicians and policymakers will take note of the suggestions advanced in this report and steer the world towards sustainable development.

An important year

The year 2024 is an election year across the world. At least 64 countries, both developed and developing, accounting for 49% of world population, will go to the polls. Perhaps, it is important for all the newly elected governments to ponder over the sustainability issue and align their national policies accordingly.

Srikumar Chattopadhyay is a retired scientist and was Head, Resources Analysis Division, Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. He is a former National Fellow of the Gulati Institute for Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram

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