UNSDGs: Sustainable development remains a goal too far

G7, G20 need to move beyond promises & pledges

Environment

July 13, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

UNSDGs: Sustainable development remains a goal too far

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres admits SDG process not on track

It has become the new normal at all key international meetings across the world for global leaders to parrot their concern for environmental protection and the need to battle the climate crisis. At the G7 Summit in the United Kingdom last month, leaders of the seven richest nations in the world did the same again and spoke at length about sustainability & equality. Time to put words into actions.

In many ways it was heartening to see that the G7 Summit 2021, held in the United Kingdom on June 11-13, delved in detail on topics beyond business, trade, investment, strategy and power. For once, it took up issues that concern people and their well-being – health, poverty, education, inequality, deforestation, biodiversity and hunger.

While discussion on these matters of day to day lives of billions of people is certainly important, unfortunately the leaders have so far tended to forget these pledges and it’s back to business as usual the moment these high-powered Summits are over.

These issues have for long been a global concern and form part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or UNSDGs, which were adopted by the United Nations in a special summit in New York in September 2015. The 17 goals cover a wide area of development and are supposed to be met by all countries by the year 2030.

The battering that coronavirus pandemic has delivered to the entire world over the past 18 months has been a huge setback in the world’s progress towards achieving those goals, with years of progress getting written off. Hence, most of the 17 goals and their 221 indicators or sub-targets seem much further away from achievement than they did in 2019.

But it would be a fallacy to blame the disruption on the pandemic and to say that the world had made a lot of progress on the path towards meeting these goals before the pandemic tsunami hit it. Indeed, in a speech UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that even before the pandemic, SDG progress was not on track. He had gone further and said that many nations had stalled or were even moving backwards in some areas.

The pandemic has indeed delivered a terrible blow to several of the goals and it seems to have put at least some of them beyond reach even by 2030. On the SDG tracker, most of the globe appears in deep red, indicating major challenges ahead. Take poverty eradication, for instance. UNSG admits that eradicating poverty by 2030 is out of reach due to the triple threat of Covid-19, conflict and climate change.

On zero hunger, too, there has been significant setback across the world and as many as 130 million more persons may have been pushed into chronic hunger just last year and malnutrition has become a severe challenge in many countries, especially the developing world. But maybe it is the goal 3, health and well-being, where the world has seen the worst setback due to the pandemic.

In April 2021, Guterres noted that essential health services were yet disrupted in 90 pc of countries, including for several tropical diseases like TB, HIV as well as Hepatitis B and C. In addressing inequality, many countries have been pushed back by a decade due to the pandemic, but it is an all-pervasive problem that has accentuated even further as in 2020, global stock markets boomed, while the income of a vast majority of population in the world took a significant beating.

Similarly, many international bodies working in education are already calling the pandemic impact on education being a generational catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the report card reads no better for practically all other elements of human development, be it gender equality or access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Even in terms of goals that are not so much linked to humanity but to the planet Earth, like biodiversity, overfishing, deforestation or carbon emissions, the progress had been tardy or just not there, with or without the pandemic.

Thus, six years after the goals were established and nine years before their deadline, Guterres’ report card reads like a catastrophic and collective defeat of humankind in achieving progress that is crucial not just for one country or region, but the entire world and not just for humans but indeed for every form of life and nature present on the Earth.

Indeed, on biodiversity conservation, preservation of forests or climate change, instead of progress or construction of a greener and sustainable world, there has been widespread and large-scale destruction. Carbon emissions are at their highest ever despite more than adequate evidence of the link to climate, forests are being destroyed across the world by human action as well as forest fires, significant, irreparable losses in biodiversity and marine resources under unprecedented pressure due to overfishing and pollution.

The world has a narrow window of less than 18 months to make radical changes in its approach and the governments need to make big readjustment in their policies and start spending in a big way on the social sector to try and bridge the gaps that remain.

It is here that the G7 leaders can play a crucial role and without which UNSDGs could already be consigned to the waste bin of humanity as yet another pledge that was never honoured. Like never before, the world as a whole needs finance, technology and know-how to address many of the challenges that separate it from the UNSDGs. All these elements are available in the developed world and the needs are the highest in developing countries.

Hence, now is the moment for the US President Joe Biden to lead his fellow G7 leaders in making good on their pledges or commitments to the various issues ailing the world. If they indeed deliver on their promises, it could help humankind take a big leap towards a more equitable, just and sustainable world, with proper place for nature and all forms of life.

However, if they fail to come through once again, the world would see a repeat performance of the fate of UN Millennium Development Goals, which were 10 goals adopted by the world in September 2000 and for achievement in 2015. However, when it became evident that the world was nowhere near meeting these goals, global leaders rebranded them into UNSDGs and gave themselves another 15 years.

If they fail again, the loss would not be just theirs or the humanity’s, it would be a loss for the planet Earth and the biosphere and unlike in 2015, the world will not get another opportunity to repackage these goals and hope for more time. There is no more time left.

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