Midway through Agenda 2030: Global community must step up a gear

The mid-term review from the latest Global Sustainable Development Report makes sober reading. Answers are expected at the United Nations SDG Summit in New York in September.

We’re now at the halfway stage in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched in New York in 2015. We still have seven years to achieve its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as unanimously agreed by all 193 UN member states. The Agenda’s core objective sounds simple enough, but making it a reality calls for a superhuman effort by the international community: “A good life for all within planetary boundaries”.

Sobering stock-take

As things stand, our progress on the goals does “not look good”, observes Imme Scholz, president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and former Deputy Chair of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE). Scholz is co-chair of the group of independent scientists that drafted the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) on behalf of the United Nations and who give their expert assessment on the real-world progress every four years.

Their conclusions are worrying: already the first SDG of ending poverty is way off target and the scientists expect to see an additional 75 to 95 million people slip into extreme poverty if nothing is done. UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, progress on development – some of it achieved over decades – has not only stalled but in some cases even gone into reverse. As such, the global community is only on track with twelve percent of the SDG indicators measured.

But “also regardless of the Covid pandemic and its consequences, the global challenges for the economic, social and eco-systems are now more present than ever before”, according to Germany’s Voluntary National Review. The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has exacerbated the situation further, especially when it comes to the second SDG of ending hunger, as both countries are major exporters of food, fertiliser and energy.

This sobering stock-take begs the question of how we can achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda in the time we still have left. The answers are expected to come in September at the United Nations SDG Summit in New York, where the heads of state and government will issue a declaration. Preparation for the summit includes the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), also in New York, in July where the ministers will prepare the political declaration and 40 states will present their progress reports. Under the somewhat unwieldy title of “Accelerating the recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at all levels”, participants will present measures and success stories aimed at supercharging our progress towards the SDGs.

German stance for New York

Germany’s stance for the HLPF was developed at the German Conference on the 2030 Agenda on 9 May. The meeting saw the federal ministers for development, Svenja Schulze (SPD), and the environment, Steffi Lemke (Alliance 90/The Greens), come together with representatives of civil society, academia and business as well as the Bundestag and the federal and Länder ministries to gather ideas for a more ambitious and accelerated implementation of the 2030 Agenda. “We need to step up our pace”, concluded Lemke, who also emphasised the correct handling of water as one of the keys to reaching the global SDGs.

This year’s HLPF in July intends to review the progress on Goal 6, access to clean water and sanitation. It will also focus on affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11) and global partnerships for achieving the goals (SDG 17). To avoid cherry-picking, the 2030 Agenda states that the 17 goals are indivisible. This led to the recommendation in the previous Global Sustainable Development Report from 2019 that governments should prioritise key policies that progress multiple topic areas at the same time.

“The most important lever we have is to back women more”, believes federal development minister Schulze, who for this reason urged further expansion of feminist development policy. Another central lever is “social safety nets, which reduce inequalities and generally advance societies and make them more resilient”. Schulze is also keen to expedite the reform of the World Bank. This needs to become a real transforming bank, one which not only combats hunger and poverty but also drives solutions for climate and nature protection.

Reform of international financial institutions

The background to this reform is the Bridgetown Initiative launched by Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados. In light of the ever-increasing funding gap for sustainable development worldwide, the initiative calls for a reform of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to leverage capital and pour more of it than before into climate and sustainability. The ultimate aim of the Bridgetown Initiative is to stop the spiral of debt that developing countries time and again find themselves in when they are forced to borrow money due to natural disasters. While rich countries are granted low-interest loans at between one and four percent, the interest rate for poorer countries is closer to 14 percent (as at 2023) due to the perceived risk. These institutions dominated by the USA and Europe came into being at the end of the Second World War and are no longer suitable for the modern world. “When it comes to the grants and heavily reduced-rate loans for low-income countries, there must be no corners cut. This reform must serve the poorest countries”, was Germany’s position vis-à-vis the World Bank, represented by Parliamentary State Secretary Niels Annen (SPD).

But unlike their forerunners, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs set out in the 2030 Agenda are not a programme that focuses on the so-called developing countries alone. “The rich countries must now shoulder both at the same time: the transition within their own country and the support for others”, spells out Imme Scholz. This calls not only for financial help, she continues, but also for the avoidance of imports from developing countries that harm their own environment and preside over increased poverty. The German supply chain act could potentially be used to support this, as could agricultural reform in the EU. Following the SDG Summit in September, the Federal Chancellery will set about revising the German Sustainable Development Strategy – a valuable opportunity to catch up.

“At this critical moment, we’re standing on the brink”, is the dramatic verdict in UN chief António Guterres’s progress report on the SDGs. To make sure we still reach the goals, or at least make substantial headway on them, countries must turbocharge their efforts to achieve any progress worth mentioning for people and planet. In short, it’s time for the international community to move into overdrive.