The UN 2030 Agenda To Transform the World: Where are we now?

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 14. December 2019 - 0:33
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

The UN 2030 Agenda To Transform the World: Where are we now?

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum

Paper presented at the 15th ECPD International Conference
Belgrade, Serbia, 25 October 2019

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, launched a wide process of consultation to prepare a new agenda to 2030 to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expired in 2015. Millions took part in on-line consultations, and civil society, the scientific community and governments worked together to prepare an ambitious vision of how the world could achieve sustainable development.

The Secretary-General brought all this together in his synthesis report “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet” of December 2014 . It called for a fundamental transformation in society and the economy, and defined the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a paradigm shift for people and planet, inclusive and people-centred, leaving no one behind. The SDGs integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions in a spirit of solidarity, cooperation, mutual accountability, with the participation of governments and all stakeholders (UN 2014).

This provided the basis for the UN Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York, 25-27 September 2015, including its Sustainable Development Goals. The summit outcome document ,“Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, stated: “It is ‘We the Peoples’ who are embarking today on the road to 2030. Our journey will involve Governments as well as Parliaments, the UN system and other international institutions, local authorities, indigenous peoples, civil society, business and the private sector, the scientific and academic community – and all people.... It is an Agenda of the people, by the people, and for the people – and this, we believe, will ensure its success” (UN2015).

Sustainable Development Goals

Since then, the Sustainable Development Goals have become the framework for positive action by governments, civil society and even the private sector to move the world towards social, economic and environmental sustainability. The 17 goals include 169 targets with indicators to measure progress. It is important, five years into the process, to ask where we stand now. Fortunately, there is regular reporting to the UN High Level Political Forum, created for that purpose, both individually by government through Voluntary National Reviews, and collectively. The following are some of the highlights for each goal from the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 (UN 2019).

1. No Poverty. The world is not on track to end poverty by 2030. The world counted 10% extreme poverty in 2015, 8.6% in 2018, and 6% projected in 2030. 55% of people have no social protection.

2. No Hunger. There were 821 million people undernourished 2017, up from 784 million in 2015.

3. Good Health and Well-being. There was some progress, with deaths of children under 5 dropping from 9.8 million in 2000 to 5.4 million in 2017.

4. Quality Education. At present, 20% of children and adolescents (6-17 years) are not attending school, and 617 million lack basic reading and math skills.

5. Gender Equality. 18% of women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced partner violence in the last 12 months.

6. Clean Water and Sanitation. Today 785 million people lack basic drinking water services, and 2 billion live in high water stress countries.

7. Affordable and Clean Energy. There are still 840 million people who lack electricity, mostly in rural areas. On the other hand, the world uses 2.3% less energy for each $1 of economic output each year.

8. Decent Work and Economic Growth. Real GDP grew 4.8% in the least developed countries (LDCs), less than the 7% target. Global unemployment stands at 5%.

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Industrialisation is too slow in the LDCs, where the value added per capita is $114 compared to $4,938 in the most advanced countries. On the positive side, research and development (R&D) reached $2 trillion in 2016, up from $739 billion in 2000.

10. Reduced Inequalities. Inequality is increasing, with the bottom 40% receiving 25% of global income, while the top 1% increased their share.

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities. Today, 25% of urban residents live in slums, and 90% breathe polluted air; 2 billion have no waste collection services.

12. Sustainable Consumption and Production. Our material footprint is increasing rapidly, from 54 billion metric tonnes in 2000 to 92 billion in 2017, and projected to reach 190 billion in 2060; in high income countries, the material footprint is 13 times that of the LDCs.

13. Climate Action. Our response to the climate crisis is far from adequate, with the atmospheric CO2 concentration 146% of the preindustrial level, and investment in fossil fuels higher than that in climate activities.

14. Life below Water. Ocean acidity has increased 26% from CO2 dissolving in the water, and fish stocks considered sustainable are down to 67%.

15. Life on Land. Biodiversity loss is accelerating, and land degradation now affects 1/5 of the land area of the planet.

16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Women are victims in 64% of family-related homicides, and 70% of human trafficking victims.

17. Partnerships for the Goals. The trend is negative, with net overseas development assistance (ODA) down 2.7% from 2017 to 2018; today remittances are the largest source of external financing for developing countries.

At the planetary level, the news is equally bad. Scientific work to determine the planetary boundaries for such things as climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change and excessive use of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds shows that we have already overshot those boundaries and must reduce our impacts to return to a safe operating space for humanity (Steffan et al. 2015). The warnings about the limits to growth are nothing new, going back as far as 1972. In an update for the Rio Earth summit in 1992, modelling of trends in population growth, resource consumption, pollution and other parameters of the global system showed that business as usual would lead to the collapse of civilization in the middle of this century. Had we transformed society to a sustainable path in 1992, this could have been avoided, but if the transformation was delayed until 2015, a severe crises in mid-century was inevitable (Meadows 1992). Scientists have gone back to see how these modelling projections correspond to what actually happened, and the data show that we are tracking exactly as predicted. The only thing that has changed is that a transition to a sustainable society without a collapse along the way is no longer a realistic possibility (MacKenzie 2012).

The reality of our present predicament is a challenge for us all. The 2030 Agenda is a call for justice addressed to everyone. Many countries, organizations and even businesses are committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs. But the goals are ambitious even if everyone supported them. Today there are many forces working against them and against the multilateral collaboration that might make them possible. This is the elephant in the room.

Negative forces

The negative forces are most obvious in our materialistic economic system that concentrates wealth at the top, leaving the majority worse off, and favouring profit over the common good. The resulting increase in vulnerability and insecurity fosters populism and nativism and a desire for strong leaders. Without an ethical motivation or a moral framework in society, corruption is rampant and government increasingly discredited. Leaders driven by their ego seek power and wealth and become autocrats and despots fighting multilateralism.

As the climate crisis is the existential threat of our time, it is instructive to see where we stand with our use of fossil fuels and climate change. The accepted limit for global warming without significant damage to the planet is 1.5°C and we are at 1.1°C today. The estimated remaining capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon without going past this limit is 480 to 565 gigatons of CO2, which may be reached by 2030. However, the amount of carbon in proven oil, coal and gas reserves totals 2,795 gigatons, not counting unconventional sources like fracking and tar sands. This is more than five times the remaining capacity of the atmosphere. To prevent catastrophic climate change, 80% of proven reserves need to be taken off asset accounts and left in the ground (McKibben 2012). It is hard to imagine how to convince oil-producing countries and companies to do this.

Even worse from an ethical perspective, the fossil fuel companies have known for a long time about the damage they would do. Physicist Edward Teller warned the American Petroleum Institute in 1959 about the danger of rising CO2. By 1965, the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by both industry leaders and politicians. The top 20 petroleum companies have since contributed 35% of all energy-related CO2 and methane emissions, amounting to 480 gt. Four investor-owned companies (Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell) contributed more than 10% and 12 state-owned companies 20% (topped by Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian, Coal India, and Pemex). Their historical responsibility goes back much further. Between 1880 and 2010, the 90 biggest industrial carbon producers were responsible for half the rise in global temperature, and a third of sea level rise. They have delayed national and global action for decades. The five largest listed oil and gas companies spend $200 million each year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change. To make things worse, most oil producers are planning to increase their production in the next decade. Among the top five, Saudi Aramco, with a revenue in 2018 of $356bn, and production of 13.6m barrels/day, has projected an increase 7.2% to 2030. Chevron, revenue in 2018 $159bn, production 2.93m barrels/day, plans to increase production by 20% to 2030. Gazprom, revenue in 2018 $127bn, production 9.7m barrels/day, projects an increase of 3% to 2030. The worst is ExxonMobil, revenue in 2018 $290bn, production 3.7m barrels/day, which projects an increase of 35% to 2030. Finally, National Iranian Oil Co., with revenue in 2018 of $60bn, and production 4m barrels/day, projects its increase as 9.7% to 2030 (Taylor & Watts 2019).

It is no wonder that the youth are striking and marching for change. I participated in marches in Switzerland, including a national march on the capital, Bern, on 28 September 2019, when an estimated 100,000 people, more than 1% of the Swiss population, massed before the federal parliament, and a “green wave” swept into parliament in a federal election a few weeks later.

Positive Responses

This brief example of some negative forces at work underlines how important it is to adopt an ethical view in implementing the SDGs, which were built around the principle “to leave no one behind.” The goals are ambitious even if everyone supports them. What to we do with those who could not care less, because they are greedy, corrupt, violent, or selfish? Transformation at such a fundamental level must start with a change in values from those of the self-centred individualist to an altruistic vision of service to others, and at the national level from priority to national interests to acknowledgement that we all share one common Earth and must take care of it. All our faith traditions have principles of generosity and solidarity, “doing unto others” that we can build on. Public education about sustainability needs to include this dimension.

For global sustainability, we also need a measure of global governance. We expect responsible government at the national level, but refuse to create the same responsible governance under law for global problems including peace and security, and the global environment. The resulting international anarchy leads to super-powers vying for dominance and multinational corporations more powerful than governments exploiting the planet for their profit. Continuing business as usual will end in catastrophe of one form or another.

The United Nations will turn 75 in 2020, and the UN Secretary-General will be launching UN@75, a wide consultation on the future of the UN. This will be an opportunity for everyone to consider what kind of governance we need to respond to the challenges of our time, including those involved in implementing the 2030 Agenda. Voluntary efforts by the willing are clearly not enough. With two colleagues, we have written Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century, proposing significant reforms in the UN system to make it fit for purpose in our globalized world (Lopez-Claros, Dahl and Groff 2020). Can our countries and organizations help to take the lead in the next step towards effective global governance?

We need to finding a common purpose and unifying vision. As the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith has put it:
“Humanity is gripped by a crisis of identity, as various peoples and groups struggle to define themselves, their place in the world, and how they should act. Without a vision of shared identity and common purpose, they fall into competing ideologies and power struggles. Seemingly countless permutations of “us” and “them” define group identities ever more narrowly and in contrast to one another. Over time, this splintering into divergent interest groups has weakened the cohesion of society itself. Rival conceptions about the primacy of a particular people are peddled to the exclusion of the truth that humanity is on a common journey in which all are protagonists.

“Consider how radically different such a fragmented conception of human identity is from the one that follows from a recognition of the oneness of humanity. In this perspective, the diversity that characterizes the human family, far from contradicting its oneness, endows it with richness. Unity... contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguishing it from uniformity. It is through love for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the unity of the world can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfilment.

“A heart that has embraced love for the whole of humanity will certainly be pained when confronted by the suffering that so many endure because of disunity. No matter how bleak conditions may appear at any given time, no matter how dismal the immediate prospects for bringing about unity, there is no cause for despair. The distressing state of the world can only spur us to redouble our commitment to constructive action” (Universal House of Justice 2019).


“The pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action in all regions of the world. It will be shaped by the experiences of women, men, children, the rich, the poor, the governors and the governed as each one is enabled to play their rightful role in the construction of a new society. As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness.” (BIC 2010)

The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are motivated by justice “to leave no one behind”. Many things are being done to implement the SDGs at all levels in human society and all around the world. Setting positive goals can be very motivating. The challenge is to build sufficient momentum to overcome the forces of resistance. Unity of purpose can help to build unity across the Balkans region and in every community. Implementing the global goals at all levels can create a dynamic of positive change, so that we can all contribute to an organic change in human society towards justice for all.


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Last updated 13 December 2019