A Sustainability Summit in Times of War

After three years of COVID-19 and more recently the war in Ukraine, the 2030 Agenda has never before seemed quite so utopian. Now, the international community is meeting for its annual sustainability summit in New York to continue fighting for its roadmap to making the world a better place for all.

Few concerned with the global Agenda for Sustainable Development are still under any illusions: the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as formulated in the 2030 Agenda are an increasingly distant reality. “In the 75 years since the United Nations was founded, the human race has never had to face a set of challenges like we do right now”, says British actor and human rights activist Thandiwe Newton at the start of the official UN video for this year’s High-Level Political Forum, or HLPF for short.

Once a year, heads of state and government join representatives from business and civil society at the UN building in New York to review progress on the 2030 Agenda adopted by the United Nations in 2015. This year’s meeting from 5–15 July will be special for several reasons: for the first time in two years, it will predominantly take place in person instead of via video link. The HLPF will focus on how the world can recover from the pandemic in a way that effects change to achieve the SDGs.

But this is also a meeting in the midst of numerous crises, with the emotive scenes of the conference film illustrating precisely what this means: climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, war, pandemic. Similarly, the UN Secretary-General’s report on the HLPF makes for sober reading on the facts behind these images. As many as 95 million people have slipped into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, while 100 million children fall below the minimum reading proficiency level. In all the years since 1945, there have never been as many violent conflicts as there are today, while two billion people live in countries that feel the impact of this aggression. 2020 saw 161 million more people go hungry than in 2019, with Russia’s war of aggression only poised to exacerbate the situation. Indeed, Russia and Ukraine supply 30 percent of the world’s wheat and more than half of the world’s sunflower oil.

Not a summit for resignation

But the summit in New York is not one for resignation. Instead, it hopes for a fresh start. Echoing the sentiment so many are feeling, the opening video sees Newton declare that we can solve these problems together. “In light of the Russian war of aggression and its global impact, global sustainable development policy needs a total rethink”, adds Marc-Oliver Pahl, Secretary General of the German Council for Sustainable Development.

For while current affairs leave the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 – including the eradication of poverty and hunger worldwide by 2030, gender equality, and the preservation of ecosystems, to name just a few – looking more than ever like wishful thinking, the SDGs can also serve as a compass to guide us out of the crisis. This was the subject of an RNE statement back in May which emphasised that, even as the war and its impact exacerbate structural poverty, it is more important than ever for all decision-makers across government and opposition, business and society, to focus on sustainability, resource conservation and climate neutrality. Equally, now more than ever the importance of securing a clean break from our reliance on fossil raw materials, and thus on Russian natural gas, is clear. As the RNE writes, “We now need even more courage to effect the necessary transformation at pace and honour a political spirit of resolve and pragmatism”.

The HLPF is the perfect platform to summon that courage. Observers hope the meeting will get down once and for all to bridging the gaps and issues in the 2030 Agenda – certainly UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres approached the meeting unremittingly last year and seems unlikely to sugar-coat anything this time round. The HLPF is also an opportunity for states and civil society across the globe to learn from one another, which is why nation states use the stage to present their reports on the implementation of the Agenda in their respective countries. These reports are called voluntary national reviews, or VNRs. This year, a number of states have written VNRs for the first time – and behind each one is a national process for advancing sustainable development.

Events with RNE’s involvement

Last year, the meeting was held largely online and saw then-Chancellor Angela Merkel present the German VNR herself via video link. This year, Germany will be represented at state secretary level, while its official event will focus on feminist foreign policy. The RNE is also organising two events together with partners from the Global Forum for National SDG Advisory Bodies. The Forum is a global network of councils for sustainable development, or similar bodies, with a mandate to promote sustainable development in their respective countries.

The event on 12 July will address the complex issue of how different countries can establish institutions to work on sustainability policy on a long-term basis, bringing together a range of actors spanning from civil society to business.

The second event on 14 July will focus on local authorities, which have a central role to play in realising the 2030 Agenda. There are now also voluntary local reviews (VLRs) at local level to allow local governments to review their progress in achieving the Agenda. The event will see Pereira in Colombia and Bonn in Germany present their VLRs.

As such, the RNE aims to prove that the 2030 Agenda is not a matter for nation states alone, but one between states and their civil societies at all levels. “We need new structures for inter-state cooperation for those states that want to advance sustainable development, climate protection and biodiversity, but we also need greater commitment from business, civil society and local government”, says Marc-Oliver Pahl in the hope that this year’s HLPF will generate fresh momentum