What a moment! It was in 2012 at the United Nations (UN) Conference in Rio de Janeiro when the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was set in motion, where the dream was born for a world with no poverty, no hunger, quality education, equality across genders, access to water and sanitation, affordable energy and good health for all. A world where sustainability, inclusiveness, and innovation are at the heart of cities and communities. Where the delicate balance of earth’s climate and biodiversity are safeguarded, and responsible consumption and production are a priority, driving wealth inequalities lower while enabling sustained economic growth and decent work for all. A world where justice prevails and peace reigns. A world of partnerships.
Unanimous adoption of the UN SDGs in September 2015
UN member states unanimous adoption of the UN SDGs in September 2015 was historic, as world leaders came together to share a common dream of peace and prosperity for people and the planet. More than this, the world engaged with a common agenda and action plan. The 2030 Agenda. The UN SDGs took over the mantle from the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that emerged from the Millennium Declaration, adopted at the Millennium Summit in 2000 in New York City. Eradicating poverty and hunger and enshrining education, gender equality, and health were the north stars of the MDGs.
The MDGs aimed for a better world by 2015; their journey reveals partial success. Significant strides were made in areas like reducing extreme poverty, enhancing primary school enrolment, and improving access to clean water. Child mortality rates declined spectacularly, as deaths of children five years and under plummeted from 12.7 million in 1990 to 6.3 million in 2013. Nutrition improved markedly, with the percentage of underweight children under five in developing countries decreasing from 28% in 1990 to 17% in 2013. New HIV infections globally declined by 38% between 2001 and 2013, and the target to reverse the spread of tuberculosis was achieved, with treatment success rates at or above 85% since 2007, while cases of previously neglected tropical diseases fell considerably. In 2010, the target of access to safe drinking water was met.
Despite the many successes, the progress could have been more consistent across targets, regions, and countries. Many developing nations, the primary targets for health MDGs, still need to work on challenges, lagging behind their developed counterparts. There were some notable misses, such as on MDG7 “Ensure environmental sustainability,” and target 7B “Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the loss rate”. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Index, which tracks data on various species, the risk of species extinction worsened by about 10% over the 25 years to 2018.
The time-bound and measurable objectives of the UN SDGs, like the MDGs before them, have been the bridge between the dream and reality, hope and wishful thinking. They have provided an actionable roadmap to help guide humanity toward a better version of the world where we all prefer to live. And what is more motivating than a dream destination, even when the journey is filled with missteps and mishaps?
As we approach the halfway mark towards 2030, the progress on the SDGs is concerning. While initial efforts post-adoption of the SDGs saw positive trends like reduced extreme poverty, declining child mortality rates, and increased access to electricity in impoverished nations, recent analysis shows it is time to sound the alarm. A preliminary assessment by the UN General Assembly Economic and Social Council revealed that only 12% of the SDG targets were on track, while over half were off track. By 2030, an alarming 575 million people could still be in extreme poverty, and hunger levels could regress to those of 2005. Furthermore, gender equality remained elusive, with a staggering 286 years needed to close gender gaps in legal protection. The ongoing nature crisis threatens our climate goals, with carbon dioxide levels reaching unprecedented highs. Developing nations feel the lack of SDG progress most acutely, highlighting longstanding global imbalances. Encouragingly, renewable energy accounts for 29% of the worldwide energy mix, showcasing a slow but positive shift towards cleaner energy sources (SDG 7). Access to energy services also increased. However, global temperatures have risen by an estimated 1.2oC versus pre-industrial levels, emphasizing the pressing need to combat global warming and related climate changes (SDG 13). The interconnectedness of these goals underscores the importance of a systemic approach. As the 2030 deadline approaches, global collaboration, innovation, and investment are crucial to address these challenges and pave the way for a sustainable future.
Figure 1. Progress assessment for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals based on assessed targets, 2023 or latest data (percentages)
Source: “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: towards a rescue plan for people and the planet,” Report of the Secretary-General, UN General Assembly Economic and Social Council, April 2023
By now, we understand that the north star and central promise of the 2030 Agenda to “leave no one behind” is in peril. We must raise our spirits and double down on our ambitions. However, achieving the SDGs is a marathon relay race. The stakes are high: neglecting the SDGs could lead to political instability, economic upheaval, environmental degradation, and widespread suffering, especially among the most vulnerable.
Yet, the dream for a sustainable and equitable world is more alive today than ever. Since 2015, various actors have embraced the SDGs, from governments to cities to organizations and companies. This brings to the fore that the wish for a sustainable, resilient world that leaves no one behind is widely shared.
The 2030 Agenda is the unifying global compass until 2030. Even if the goals are not all reached by 2030 or if there is backtracking in places, the relay must continue. Unparalleled scientific knowledge and technological know-how make the dream almost tangible. We all can play a role as politicians, citizens, professionals, parents, investors, entrepreneurs, and human beings.
It is past midnight for the asset management industry to embrace its role to appropriately calibrate long-term sustainability risks and opportunities and support investors in fulfilling their potential to help shape the long-term direction of companies and, by extension, that of society at large.
Written by Panagiota Balfousia, Head Sustainable Business Strategy at Kieger AG and Pietro Visetti, Sustainable Business Strategy Analyst
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