Development is often driven often by one particular need without full consideration of the wider impacts in the future. It is against this backdrop that an approach to development that balances the different needs against an awareness of the environment, social and economic limitations in the society was adopted by the United Nations member states in 2015 at its Sustainable Development Summit.
This international framework – Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – titled “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, is a global agenda to guide developmental efforts that provides shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and unto the future. With 17 goals, 169 targets, and 244 indicators (93 of which are related to the environmental), it aims to measure and address the most pressing issues facing the planet, and interactions amongst its components.
The environmental dimension of the SDGs covers the natural resource management, climate change, water-related and marine issues, biodiversity and ecosystem, circular economy, and environmentally sound management of chemicals and wastes. At the heart of these SDGs as it relates to the environment are clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), life below water (SDG 14) and life on land (SDG 15) and partnership for the goals (SDG 17).
At the mid-point on the way to the agenda, it becomes necessary to evaluate and assess the progress of the scheme towards achieving the 2030 mandate. The annual report from the international body provides the trends over the years with respect to the progression and regression towards the course.
Its first report in 2016 was a call to all UN family and partners to embrace teamwork for the 15-year period undertaken. It also encouraged about 40 countries to ratify the Paris Agreement before the end of the year to enhance the SDG 13 (climate action). Summarising the maiden report, the UN Secretary-General said, “Ensuring progress in achieving the SDGs will be greatly enhanced by making sure that lessons are shared, and best practices are replicated”. Thus, the first year was used for sensitization, orientation and awareness for the SDGs.
The 2017 overview saw call for greater effort to accelerate progress of the SDGs. Titled “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals” (E/2017/6), the report showed that progress has not been equitable, with uneven advances across regions, between urban and rural populations, and depending on gender, age and wealth.
The report called for a new approach for measuring progress in drinking water, sanitation and hygiene; accelerated progress to end open defecation, especially in rural areas of Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa; and more efficient ways of using water and producing food (SDG 6). On SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), it recorded that considerable progress has not been made. Findings on SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production) showed many countries are not meeting reporting commitments under chemical and hazardous waste environmental agreements. Regarding SDG 14 (life below water), it highlighted that despite expansion of marine protected areas, overfishing threatens about one third of the world’s fish stocks; and without concerted action, eutrophication in coastal waters will increase in one-fifth of the marine ecosystems by 2050.
Progress on SDG 15 (life on land) showed continued shrink of the forest area; threat of extinction and survival for corals, amphibians, cycads and many species resulting from illicit wildlife poaching and trafficking. On a positive note, the report explains that while official development assistance reached a new high, aid to the poorest countries is lagging i.e. SDG 17 (partnerships for the Goals).
The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018 recorded progress on SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) with over 100 countries having sustainable consumption and production (SCP) policies and initiatives. The report also elaborated the dependency of transition towards sustainable and resilient societies on responsible management of finite resources (SDG 11), underscoring access to basic services as a steppingstone to sustainable development.
It further highlighted the global trends in decline of marine fish stocks and deterioration of coastal waters, due to pollution and eutrophication on SDG 14 (life below water) and shrinking of the world’s forest reserve areas with respect to SDG 15 (life on land), showing no progress from the 2017 report.
In the 2019 report, “Measuring Progress: Towards Achieving the Environmental Dimension of the SDGs”, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) analysed the progress made on the environment-related indicators by the SDG and by the region. Good progress was established on 23% of environment-related SDG indicators while lack of an agreed methodology characterised over 30% of the environment-related SDGs indicators. Also, SDG 12 was characterised by voluntary national reviews and SDG prioritisation processes.
However, warnings of insufficient data to assess progress (68%) and/or unlikeliness to meet the target without increased actions were laid for the other 77% of the environment-related indicators. The progress recorded during this year was attributed to policy changes, improved reporting and increased funding efforts.
Similarly, the 2020 SDG progress report found continued progress but uneven. Areas of progress related to the environment include development of more national sustainable development policies and signing of international agreements for environmental protection (SDG 17). The rate of climate change (SDG 13) was also identified with stalled progress.
The UN Secretary-General further called for protection of recent gains and pursuit of a truly transformative recovery from covid-19 pandemic, one that brings much closer the inclusive and sustainable development required to meet the goals of the 2030 agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The 2021 SDG progress report experienced a regression on the progress of the SDGs. This suggested a halt and a call for partnership. The report showed a slight decrease in the global average country score on the SDG index, mainly due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth). It further recorded poor performance on SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life below water) and SDG 15 (life on land). Furthermore, despite the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the previous year due to the economic shutdown caused by COVID-19, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6% in 2021.
Likewise, the 2022 report titled “Mobilising International Financing to Restore and Accelerate SDG Progress” by the international organization emphasised that the 2030 Agenda is in grave danger resulting from the confluence of global crises, conflicts, COVID-19, climate change etc. Key findings from the report showed that one quarter of the global population is living in conflict-affected countries (SDG 11).
The Ukraine war is creating one of the largest refugee crises in recent times. The report also projected an estimated 14% increase on global emissions (SDG 13) over the current decade based on current national commitments. As such, a climate catastrophe is imminent with series of environmental and climatic damages. Furthermore, the report found increased acidification, eutrophication (excessive nutrients in water and plastic pollution, including single use plastics from personal protection equipment) as regards SDG 14.
As a result, the world’s oceans and billions of people whose livelihoods depend on them are endangered via decrease in fish production (of 40% – 80% in most countries) with coastal and island communities being affected the most. Also, continued global deforestation, land and ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss poses major risks to human survival and sustainability (SDG 15).
With the downward progression over the last two years and projections from the global body, the ray of hope provided by the SDGs of the international organisation is fast fading away. Concluding in the words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, “We must rise higher to rescue the Sustainable Development Goals – and stay true to our promise of a world of peace, dignity and prosperity on a healthy planet”.
Such is an important call to re-commitment on the SDGs and accelerate efforts towards its progress. It is a proposition for actions to rescue the SDGs. It is a call to achieve the following:
- Establishment of robust water and sanitation infrastructure.
- Ensure access to clean and affordable energy.
- Protect ecosystems, building ecologically friendly and safe cities, and adopting sustainable consumption and production patterns as ways to address the challenges related to climate change, environmental degradation, urbanisation amongst others.
- Peace, diplomacy, and international cooperation which are fundamental conditions for the world to progress on the SDGs towards 2030 and beyond.
- Ambitious and sound national targets, strategies and plans, and investing in national statistical systems.
- Scale up partnership and innovations in scientific cooperation and data through increased and prolonged investments in statistical capacities, research and development, education, and skills.
- Increase support for research, development, education and skills in line with environmental monitoring and analysis, development of SDG indicator methodologies and promoting integrated analysis of the environment and of policy interactions.
- Improve SDG follow-up, review and implementation through the use of regional, sub-regional and country-level mechanisms
- Improve the collection and dissemination of reliable, accessible, disaggregated and timely data, for better evidence-based policymaking.
- Increase political commitment and investment in technology and innovation.
This is therefore an urgent call to rescue the SDGs to deliver its mandate to the people and planet by 2030. Let us capitalise on the opportunity afforded by the recovery to adopt low-carbon, resilient and inclusive development pathways that will reduce carbon emissions, conserve natural resources, transform our food systems, create better jobs and advance the transition to a greener, more inclusive and just economy, for now and unto the future.
By Kelechukwu K. Ibe