In Brief

World to miss UN sustainable development goals ‘by decades’

‘Towering achievement’ risks being undermined by growing inequality and climate change

The world is decades behind schedule to meet the UN’s ambitious goals aimed at fighting poverty, hunger and climate change, experts have warned.  

The global adoption of 17 United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was hailed as a “towering achievement” by then-secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, when they were agreed by heads of state and government representatives back in 2015.

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, which were set in September 2000 to tackle poverty, SDGs apply to all countries, not just developing nations.

The package of economic, social and environmental objectives aims to eradicate extreme poverty, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day, and reduce at least by half the proportion of all those living in poverty in all its dimensions, according to national definitions, by 2030.

However, with goals also on gender equality, inclusive education, healthy living and urgent action on climate change broken down into 169 more specific targets, some have claimed the 15-year timeframe is far too ambitious.

With climate change top of the political agenda, a global climate strike led by young people is taking place today ahead of a meeting of world leaders in New York. 

It is the first time leaders are set to meet at the UN’s headquarters to discuss the goals since they were adopted by the UN four years ago, and “assessments of their progress have been bleak” reports Reuters.

The 2019 Social Progress Index, compiled by the US non-profit Social Progress Imperative, ranks 149 countries’ social performance over the past five years, using indicators such as nutrition, shelter, safety, education, health, personal rights and inclusiveness.

The index offers a comprehensive snapshot of a country’s overall progress towards the achievement of the goals, and forecasts that at current trends the world will not meet the SDGs 2030 target until 2073, more than four decades past their target date.

“Progress isn’t fast enough to achieve the ambition of the SDGs within my lifetime, and that’s a problem,” said Michael Green, chief executive of the SPI. “There are some countries that are going backwards and letting us down.”

The data shows the biggest areas of underperformance are on measures related to water and sanitation, nutrition and basic medical care, and shelter.

Personal rights have particularly declined, with 91 of the 149 ranked countries recording a fall in rights, with freedoms of religion and expression deteriorating the most.

Placing blame on growing inequality and on climate change, Shantanu Mukherjee, policy chief at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said: “The pace of progress is faltering. Not only are business-as-usual efforts losing steam... there are trends that threaten to undermine and even reverse the progress already being made on a massive scale”.

A recent report on the SDGs by leading scientists concluded countries must address vast gaps in wealth distribution and improve access to economic opportunities and technological advances that undermine innovation and growth.

While there have been questions about political will there is also a strong financial factor behind slowing progress, particularly amid growing fears of a global recession and ongoing US-China trade war.

The cost of implementing the global goals has been estimated at $3 trillion a year and The National reports that top financial organisations including the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation have predicted the goals will fail without new ways to ease national debts, boost wages and expand trade.

Yet Jonquil Hackenberg in Forbes says the UN’s sustainable development goals “aren’t just about doing good, they’re good business”.

Sustainability, “is not a zero-sum game; and many initiatives that benefit humanity and the planet can also bring significant positives for business” she writes, citing cutting carbon output and energy use which can drastically lower energy bills, “while it’s been shown that consumers are willing to pay more for ethical products”.

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