2023 marks the mid-point in the timeline for achieving the 17 United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (UN SDGs) by 2030 since the launch of the initiative to achieve them in 2015. As a successor to the UN Millennial Development Goals, the UN SDGs are more ambitious, more inclusive and require wider collaboration between industries and governments to achieve them and make the world sustainable.
However, progress on SDG achievement so far has not been as encouraging as it was originally envisioned. Progression towards many of the 169 targets under the 17 SDGs are rated as fair, limited or even nil, according to the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report, and progress towards some of them has actually deteriorated. As a result, UN leaders warned at the UN SDGs Summit in September that “achievement of the goals is in peril”.
Most of the concerns are focused on goals like “achieving sustainable economic growth (target 8.1.1)”, whose achievement displayed a backward pattern from 2020 to 2023, according to the report, and “reducing global greenhouse gas emissions (target 13.2.2)”, which it marked as having “deteriorated” during 2023.
Progress on targets like eradicating poverty (target 1.1.1) and achieving food security (target 2.1.2) are also not reassuring. Experts from the UN department of economic and social affairs say these setbacks are the result of a combination of unexpected events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical conflicts and regional wars, and the rising cost of living.
Should climate change fighters feel discouraged when examining the possibility of reaching the SDGs in time? Definitely not. While the efforts and costs of accelerating sustainable development are huge, the cost of doing nothing is far more daunting. And silver linings can still be found in the clouds. For example, SDG awareness is constantly increasing with more people searching for SDGs online, more sustainability-related academic research papers being published, more governments integrating SDGs into their policy processes and more corporations starting to develop SDG-aligned strategies.
In addition, investments from the public and private sectors are escalating. Financing from multilateral development banks to address climate change reached a record high in 2022 of nearly US$100 billion worldwide, the report finds, and the installed capacity for renewable energy went beyond 2.5 million megawatts globally in 2021 under the joint effort of public and private actors.
Transformation is possible and inevitable, the report points out. Using a stylized S-curve model that follows a three-stage process of emergence, acceleration and stabilization, the report explains why the sustainable pathways of transformation should be rooted in “socially robust” science.
Specifically, the report calls for an open, evidence-based science system that leans towards low- and middle-income countries to boost the transformation process towards a sustainable future. The collaboration of vaccine development during the pandemic, the report argues, is a typical example of how an “open, evidence-based” science system could benefit the world.
In the end, to build the capacity necessary to achieve the SDGs on time, a transformation framework for accelerated action is needed that requires collective actions from governments, businesses, industry associations and institutional investors.
On a high note, the report does point out that over 30% of the targets under SDG12, responsible consumption and production, are on-track, representing the highest percentage of achievement with regard to all 17 SDGs, and it notes the positive global trend in recent years of governments, businesses and investors increasing their focus on environmental, social and governance issues.