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COVID-19 has had the world on tenterhooks for months. Some states seem to have contained the pandemic, while others are desperately fighting the virus as their infection rates soar. Yet others are already in the midst of a second wave. Most countries in the Global South imposed lockdowns very early on and are now dealing with the pandemic’s devastating indirect social and economic consequences. Coronavirus is battering the community of states at a time when it needs to be focusing all of its energy on achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN). By 2030, hunger and poverty should be eliminated around the world, climate protection targets should be reached, education should be accessible for all, and gender equality should be achieved.

Between 7 and 16 July, state representatives and experts – primarily from non-governmental organisations – met at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The annual event is the United Nations’ most important platform for reviewing progress in implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the run-up to 2030. This year’s forum focused on initiating a decade of action in which the implementation of the SDGs should be accelerated. The meetings were held virtually this year to prevent spreading coronavirus. Experts believe that this also made the forum more inclusive: the virtual format enabled a large number of players to take part who would otherwise have been unable to attend due to the expense associated with travelling to New York.

47 states presented their voluntary national reviews (VNR) setting out their progress with regard to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Coronavirus dominated the debates concerning action plans and the way in which the international community of states can respond to the pandemic while remaining on course for 2030.

COVID-19 thwarts the fight against poverty

There is great concern that the progress made to date will be undone by the spread of coronavirus. In particular, the number of people living in poverty is expected to rise. Experts in development policy and healthcare expect the impact of the pandemic to be visible for generations to come. Measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19 and long-term development plans must go hand in hand to end poverty and hunger around the world, urged delegates at the UN forum. Efforts to ensure access to good healthcare, protection from fatal diseases, and high-quality education must be stepped up, they said. Cristina Duarte, the UN’s Special Advisor on Africa, emphasised that cooperation and dialogue between various stakeholders were needed to achieve this. “It is time political decision-makers set priorities for the development of humanity.”

In her contribution to the UN forum, Imme Scholz, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) and Acting Director of the German Development Institute (DIE), highlighted the direct link between tackling poverty and protecting the climate.

As the population grows, emissions of carbon dioxide also increase. At the same time, a large number of people are living in poverty. To become more sustainable, rich states need to reduce their consumerism and switch to recycling or renewables, said Scholz.

An analysis by the German Development Institute examined 53 developing countries. Although 70 per cent of these states improved their poverty rates within a 15-year period (2000 to 2015), this was done at the expense of climate protection. Uruguay and Costa Rica achieved the best results. Both countries focused on education and health programmes, as well as investing in renewable energies. Scholz called for others to follow these examples to avoid pitching poverty eradication against climate protection in the 21st century. There is a risk of precisely this happening: due to a lack of consensus among the states, there will be no political declaration by the HLPF this year. This means that there may be no declaration on the 2030 Agenda – in the UN’s 75th anniversary year. That would be a sorry sign for multilateralism.

Vulnerable health systems

COVID-19 showed how susceptible health systems are, all around the world. Vulnerable groups in particular – especially children, women, elderly people and the disabled – were not protected sufficiently, said Githinji Gitahi, Global CEO of AMREF Health Africa, an organisation dedicated to improving healthcare on the African continent. Gitahi called for not just general health systems to be strengthened, but also individual communities and prevention programmes. “Health starts at home,” said Gitahi.

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015. They now form the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and can be traced back to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro 1992. The goals apply equally to all states around the world and give equal weight to the three aspects of sustainability, i.e. social, economic and environmental considerations. In Germany, the National Sustainable Development Strategy is the framework for implementation of the Agenda.

In September, the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) will discuss the state of implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in an online forum with RNE members and other experts. Germany is expected to publish its voluntary national review with respect to the 2030 Agenda in the coming year. Furthermore, the German Sustainable Development Strategy is currently being revised, with the RNE recommending that it should also include Germany taking greater international responsibility for global sustainability policy.

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Berlin, 23.09.2019 - The German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) views the Federal Government’s Climate Action Programme as a starting shot and part of a wider debate that must continue to be pursued intensively. The Council’s Chairwoman Marlehn Thieme assesses the result as follows: “Finally a resolution has been reached, which just a short time ago was unthinkable. At the same time, the result as such still falls short.” The policymakers and the associates from the broader political arena are due great respect, Thieme adds. To date there had been only very rare occasions where such a broad and scientifically founded discussion of Germany’s path out of the climate and development crisis was possible; rarely had there been opportunity to debate with such a level of accuracy and detail on the fundamental issues of this topic; and seldom had the commitment and personal dedication invested on the part of political leaders been so high. According to Thieme, it is very pleasing to see the Federal Government taking its climate targets so seriously and that it has not abandoned them at the first sign of serious headwinds.

Enormous amounts of scientific data and evidence indicate that when it comes to climate protection, “the politicians” have in the past not taken enough action. Failure to achieve the target of a “40% CO2 reduction by 2020” is now leading to consequences. In many areas, however, the Climate Action Programme does not go far enough. The introduction of CO2 pricing in particular is very pleasing as such, but the price is set too low, allows for too little dynamism and has been given an insufficient time horizon to be able to send a clear long-term signal about the direction. Though the commitment to achieving the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement is mentioned, the Programme does not acknowledge that to do so it will be necessary to increase the existing European emissions reduction target for 2030 considerably. This is exactly the area in which the Federal Government must now steadfastly push for adjustments at European level. Germany must support the ambitious climate goals of the EU and help take the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in a climate-friendly direction.

The RNE is pleased to note the new and supplementary measures and concepts that have now been agreed. The next task will be to translate these into concrete laws and subsidy guidelines. Agreements must be made with Germany’s federal states (Länder) and municipalities. The reviews must be completed swiftly. Now that the Climate Cabinet has met, it is time for the real work to begin on actual calculable impact on behalf of climate protection, and many concrete decisions will have to be taken, which will be the true litmus test of political will.

The RNE would like to convey the following key points to the Bundestag and Bundesrat as they continue their deliberations and to the Federal Government as it continues to give the Programme concrete form:

The RNE recommends that the climate measures be embedded in a “deep” sustainability strategy in the sense of a shared task that spans all sectors and areas of society. As an instrument for implementing guidelines and political steering, the German Sustainable Development Strategy is a good example of a knowledge- and process-based approach through which politics can measure its own performance and prove willingness to correct mistakes.

CO2 emissions of all sectors – from agriculture and the food industry to real estate, transport and the industrial and commercial segments – must be reduced regularly every year. Developments that go in the wrong direction must be effectively prevented through budgetary measures in the respective sectors and sanctioned accordingly.

CO2 pricing is the central measure. It has a steering and in particular symbolic significance with regard to the transformation of economic and consumption patterns. The new CO2 trading system in the area of buildings and transport is a welcome step; however, in the form currently proposed it does not go far enough. As part of the emissions trading system for buildings and transport the wholesaler, as the so-called “distributor” (not the drivers of cars and heating customers), must purchase the certificates. The price they pay must not simply be taken over from the industry price, but must be derived from the CO2 cap for buildings and transport. The proven principle of budgetary accuracy and clarity should also be applied to the CO2 budget. The fixed price for 2021 to 2025 of from ten to 35 euros is well below the level frequently suggested by the scientific community. The fact that the social compensation for commuters will to begin with be higher than the price of petrol sends a counterproductive signal.

It is important that people are not simply given a price signal: sustainability must always start with the individual and people must be given incentives that are tangible in their everyday lives. For transforming behavioural patterns at the level of the individual, funding instruments and regulatory barriers are indispensable. In order to provide citizens and companies with alternatives to the behaviours they have heretofore chosen, any further discontinuation of rail connections at Deutsche Bahn should be forborne. An expansion plan for rail infrastructure in rural areas is required as well.

Statutory implementation of the CO2 cap for buildings needs to provide the real estate and building sector with clear requirements regarding sustainable refurbishment of buildings and make brownfield development a clear priority. Innovations and new solutions are needed here.

Expansion of energy generation from renewable sources is urgent. More must be done here. The waning of expansion in the wind power segment is unacceptable. Limits to expansion and a refusal to innovate, in particular where onshore wind power facilities are concerned, are not reconcilable with climate protection.

Regulatory solutions are generally a correct step, for instance in heating system construction. We recommend urgently as well that the great potential and innovative power of local heating associations, economies of regional value and sustainable urban planning be leveraged much more strongly than to date.

Relieving the burden on citizens as renters and employees that will result from the increased heating oil, petrol and gas prices is in general the right approach. However, although raising the commuter allowance may seem expedient in the short term, over the medium and long term it is entirely the wrong tack. The commuter allowance merely facilitates the growth of commuter flows and these already pose nearly insurmountable problems for cities and their infrastructure today. From both an urban planning as well as socio-political and healthcare policy perspective – in addition to the climate perspective – it is better advisable to take measures that lessen the divide between living and working places instead of fuelling this further. The financial relief for users of public transport and in particular rail travel is a welcome step. However, it should be mentioned that changing the distance allowance will require approval in the Länder as the associated decrease in income tax would have to be borne by the Federal Government and the Länder.

We consider a critical review oriented towards sustainability criteria and corresponding lessening of federal subsidies to be necessary. If climate-harmful subsidies such as the privileging of diesel are not eliminated, the Programme will be ineffectual and targets and measures will counteract one another. In addition to the lost impact, this will be an expensive burden in terms of credibility as well. The audit offices at federal and state level should be put in a position to evaluate the sustainability of their administrative practices in respect of financial concerns and the usage of fossil fuels.

The penalties threatened by Brussels for failure to implement measures are a form of policy pressure as they create budgetary burdens. However, lack of courage and simply doing nothing create even larger social, environmental and long-term economic costs as they divert investments, disregard innovations and disappoint the life energy expended by the millions of people who are actively striving through their purposeful work on behalf of sustainable development to create a life in dignity for themselves and their children.

We are pleased to note the innovation fund. It is correct to leverage the financial market and the innovative power of the scientific community and enterprises on behalf of climate protection. The aim must be to make Germany the sustainability technology leader in the next ten years. Innovation and protection of the environment go together: we must devise solutions for recycling wind and solar power technology and apply these, in particular to wind rotors. Germany must enter the field of sustainable business comprehensively.

The Council warns that there is more at stake than just the technological optimisation and social balancing of instruments. The conflict between funding and regulations, between freedom and prohibition, that had been intensifying prior to the Cabinet’s resolution is frequently nothing more than the illusion of a conflict. The key is to create a mix in which the political will is given primacy and this will is then reflected in tangible and concrete steps towards transformation.

Transformation processes need to be structured in a socially responsible way and accompanied by active learning processes with regard to administrative action, funding and regulation in order to continually and swiftly improve the policy measures. Integration within the German Sustainable Development Strategy will provide crucial opportunities in this regard. The advice of external experts will also be very important in this area; they must be correspondingly well equipped to take on this task.

The societal dimension climate protection requires, however, will not be attained through individual measures, no matter how carefully they are crafted. Climate protection is a shared task and this must be clearly felt. When it comes to trusting policymakers and generating commitment among the people in companies, sports clubs, churches, associations and public institutions, the internal interplay between the measures often has greater impact than simply the sum total of the measures themselves. In order to activate this interplay, a strategy is needed. Sustainability requires continuity. Only then are leapfrog innovations possible and, in particular, expedient. The agreed cornerstones relate first of all to the 2030 targets set for Germany. However, these will not be enough to stop climate change. The target of 1.5 °C requires numerous additional and further-going measures. Climate protection is a marathon with many interim destinations along the way that each require continual readjustment.

We explicitly encourage the Coalition to take up “the principle of sustainability” as a constitutional principle of the Basic Law. This would provide support for the political processes necessary for sustainable development, safeguard flexibility, improve the evaluation of laws and would send an unmistakable and clear long-term political signal.

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COVID-19 has had the world on tenterhooks for months. Some states seem to have contained the pandemic, while others are desperately fighting the virus as their infection rates soar. Yet others are already in the midst of a second wave. Most countries in the Global South imposed lockdowns very early on and are now dealing with the pandemic’s devastating indirect social and economic consequences. Coronavirus is battering the community of states at a time when it needs to be focusing all of its energy on achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN). By 2030, hunger and poverty should be eliminated around the world, climate protection targets should be reached, education should be accessible for all, and gender equality should be achieved.

Between 7 and 16 July, state representatives and experts – primarily from non-governmental organisations – met at the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The annual event is the United Nations’ most important platform for reviewing progress in implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the run-up to 2030. This year’s forum focused on initiating a decade of action in which the implementation of the SDGs should be accelerated. The meetings were held virtually this year to prevent spreading coronavirus. Experts believe that this also made the forum more inclusive: the virtual format enabled a large number of players to take part who would otherwise have been unable to attend due to the expense associated with travelling to New York.

47 states presented their voluntary national reviews (VNR) setting out their progress with regard to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Coronavirus dominated the debates concerning action plans and the way in which the international community of states can respond to the pandemic while remaining on course for 2030.

COVID-19 thwarts the fight against poverty

There is great concern that the progress made to date will be undone by the spread of coronavirus. In particular, the number of people living in poverty is expected to rise. Experts in development policy and healthcare expect the impact of the pandemic to be visible for generations to come. Measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19 and long-term development plans must go hand in hand to end poverty and hunger around the world, urged delegates at the UN forum. Efforts to ensure access to good healthcare, protection from fatal diseases, and high-quality education must be stepped up, they said. Cristina Duarte, the UN’s Special Advisor on Africa, emphasised that cooperation and dialogue between various stakeholders were needed to achieve this. “It is time political decision-makers set priorities for the development of humanity.”

In her contribution to the UN forum, Imme Scholz, member of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) and Acting Director of the German Development Institute (DIE), highlighted the direct link between tackling poverty and protecting the climate.

As the population grows, emissions of carbon dioxide also increase. At the same time, a large number of people are living in poverty. To become more sustainable, rich states need to reduce their consumerism and switch to recycling or renewables, said Scholz.

An analysis by the German Development Institute examined 53 developing countries. Although 70 per cent of these states improved their poverty rates within a 15-year period (2000 to 2015), this was done at the expense of climate protection. Uruguay and Costa Rica achieved the best results. Both countries focused on education and health programmes, as well as investing in renewable energies. Scholz called for others to follow these examples to avoid pitching poverty eradication against climate protection in the 21st century. There is a risk of precisely this happening: due to a lack of consensus among the states, there will be no political declaration by the HLPF this year. This means that there may be no declaration on the 2030 Agenda – in the UN’s 75th anniversary year. That would be a sorry sign for multilateralism.

Vulnerable health systems

COVID-19 showed how susceptible health systems are, all around the world. Vulnerable groups in particular – especially children, women, elderly people and the disabled – were not protected sufficiently, said Githinji Gitahi, Global CEO of AMREF Health Africa, an organisation dedicated to improving healthcare on the African continent. Gitahi called for not just general health systems to be strengthened, but also individual communities and prevention programmes. “Health starts at home,” said Gitahi.

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015. They now form the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and can be traced back to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro 1992. The goals apply equally to all states around the world and give equal weight to the three aspects of sustainability, i.e. social, economic and environmental considerations. In Germany, the National Sustainable Development Strategy is the framework for implementation of the Agenda.

In September, the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) will discuss the state of implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in an online forum with RNE members and other experts. Germany is expected to publish its voluntary national review with respect to the 2030 Agenda in the coming year. Furthermore, the German Sustainable Development Strategy is currently being revised, with the RNE recommending that it should also include Germany taking greater international responsibility for global sustainability policy.

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