How are Governments Meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

Joe Ronan

Joe Ronan

United Nations SDG Action Campaign

The Sustainable Development Goals matter. They provide the international community with clear guidelines about how we – all of humanity – can achieve a fair and carbon-free future. Since they were signed, they have come under attack, and so reaffirming their significance seems more important than ever. 

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Introducing the Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly met in New York. The organisation was celebrating its 70th birthday and marked the occasion by deciding upon new global sustainable development goals.

The UN signed a resolution entitled ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’ The agenda was designed as a plan of action that centred on people, the planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. The agenda 2030 asserts that:

“We are determined to end poverty and hunger… we are determined to protect the planet from degradation… we are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives…we are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.”

“We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.”

Global action on the sustainable action goals
Soon after the agreement of the SDG’s, a political rupture occurred 

At the heart of this global partnership, are the Sustainable Development Goals. They are an ‘urgent call to action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.’ The sustainable development goals sit in a long history of multinational intervention, much of which has been covered previously on this blog. 2015 however was a particular landmark year, with both Agenda 2030 and the convening of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

2015 was a high-watermark. A moment of clear international cooperation on key issues such as the need to align development with climate action.

The year that followed, however, was one of political rupture. In 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union – a rejection of institutionally-meditated internationalism (‘Take Back Control’)– and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States on a divisive platform of ‘America First.’ And then in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected on a similar platform in Brazil.

In this article, we shall discuss how governments are meeting the sustainable development goals, and how the climate politics of the last five years has changed, with specific reference to the U.S, Europe and Brazil.

SDG Goals
What are the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

But before addressing where these governments are in their attempts (or lack thereof) to meet the sustainable development goals, we should first address what exactly the sustainable development goals are.

There are 17 sustainable development goals:

  1. End poverty in all its forms. 
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.  
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. 
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. 
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. 
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. 
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

As we can see, the sustainable development goals (the clue is in the name) places at their heart both sustainability in terms of the environment, and also equitable economic and societal development. The project of sustainable development is one of global scope; ‘for all’ is a phrase that crops up consistently amongst the 17 goals.   

Trump, Washington, USA - 02 Oct 2019
The U.S and the Sustainable Development Goals

Perhaps the greatest threat to global sustainable development since 2015 came in the rather unsettling form of one Donald J. Trump. The ex-President took America out of the Paris Agreement, the new President, Joe Biden, has taken America back in.

But not before a lot of collateral damage was done. Trump relaxed rules or completely overturned over 100 regulations on environmental pollution. Thanks to these actions carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere first hit the critical level of 400 parts per million in 2016, the year Trump was elected. 

Research by NASA shows that 2020 was the hottest year on record, effectively tying with 2016, which previously held the inauspicious record. The year was over 1C warmer than 1951-1980 mean.

The U.S was the only nation not to report its progress with the SDG’s 

The U.S under Trump also retreated from the principle of multilateralism, indirect rejection of the Sustainable Development Goals’ aim of ‘revitalizing the global partnership.’ In 2019 the US was the only OECD and G-20 country that did not volunteer to report on its Sustainable Development Goal progress.

The Joe Biden administration is demonstrating greater urgency on the issue of climate change. America is back. Multilateralism is back’, according to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Joe Biden’s pick to be US permanent representative to the UN.

But the world needs action, not words

Introducing the Clean Climate Future Bill into the US Senate is a more encouraging step. The bill would provide $50 billion in its first year for investments in clean energy projects. Biden’s new $2trn infrastructure bill is far from a ‘Green New Deal,’ which he disavowed in the run-up to the Presidential election.

But it is progress – and includes $1.6 trillion to support farming that uses fewer fossil fuels and locks more carbon in the soil. It is too early to judge Biden, figures like AOC wanted more, but in spite of that, any move towards climate change remains a positive step.    

Untied Nations Angela Merkel
Europe and the Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable development informs EU policy objectives. The two most climate-focused Sustainable Development Goals are SDG #12, regarding ethical production and consumption, and SDG #13 – Climate Action. The EU is supporting 6,500 micro, small and medium-sized businesses to develop sustainable business practices, and actively promote developing sustainable supply chains.    

On Climate Action, the EU allocated 20% of its budget to climate action, with this share likely to reach at least 25% in 2021, whilst the share of climate-related development spending grew from 10.3% of total commitments in 2014 to 25.5% in 2017.

The EU considers itself to be a climate leader and is committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. Its greenhouse gas emissions are down 23% from 1998 levels, it has also announced its own Green New Deal,and is striving to be the ‘first climate-neutral continent.’  

Hungary and Poland leaders laughing
There remain challenges though, especially in Poland and Hungary 

There remain political challenges. Poland, which is ruled by the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party, refused to implement the 2050 carbon neutrality commitment. Poland is the second-largest carbon emitter after Germany (since the UK has left), and has a large coal sector and, after exemptions from the EU, is supposed to reach neutrality ‘at its own pace.’

Another of the right-wing populist leaders, Victor Orban, has however enshrined the agreement in Hungarian law. After a stand-off, and in a surprising turn, Hungary eventually committed to a ‘Christian-Democratic’ climate policy.

“Conserving nature for our children and grandchildren can be imagined as conserving something that was created by God”, Hungarian state secretary for the environment Peter Kaderjak told reporters.

Whether Orban will honour his commitments remains to be seen – his party had previously derided Greta Thunberg and labelled climate activism as a left-wing delusion. But the shift in tack can be seen as a victory for the EU against the threat of climate denial.   

Coal mining in Poland
Brazil and the Sustainable Development Goals

Those more committed to radical action on climate change may decry Biden’s hesitance, question the sincerity of an often brutal right-wing Hungarian government, but Brazil is a special case in its own right. 

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil – the world’s fifth-largest country and ninth-largest economy by GDP – is relinquishing any claim to be a leader on climate change or sustainable development.

Bolsonaro has declared a desire to take Brazil out of the UN Human Rights Council, and on day 8 of his Presidency, he announced Brazil was leaving the Global Compact for Migration.

Bolsonaro is a clear threat to sustainable development along multilateral lines. He has also attacked indigenous communities by taking from them the right to demarcate their own indigenous lands, and in 2018 reneged on Brazil’s commitment to host the COP25 climate talks.

Far-right politics now dominate Brazil’s political landscape 

His far-right government makes a mockery of the commitments to ensure gender, racial and economic justice that are central to sustainable development goals. An ex-army captain, Bolsonaro is about as close as the globe has to an out and out fascist leader.

Neighbouring countries, however, have been protagonists in the battle for sustainable development. In Panama in 2018, the Forum for the Development of Latin America and the Caribbean committed to pursuing sustainable development goals. Deforestation hit a record level of 35% in the Amazon between 2019 and 2020.

However, hope remains as oppositional movements such as the ‘We Are Together Movement’ offer a different vision of Brazil. There have been anti-Bolsonaro protests, and lawmakers booed the President in Congress in February of this year. Under Bolsonaro, the SDGs are under threat, but there remains hope the opposition can unite to resist the President.

'Like a bomb going off': why Brazil's largest reserve is facing destruction. Gold prospectors are ravaging the Yanomami indigenous reserve. So why does President Bolsonaro want to make them legal?
Sustainable Development Goals: In Conclusion

Clearly, the sustainable development goals have faced numerous challenges since 2015. Most of which have come from the populist right, in the form of Bolsonaro, Trump and similarly minded figures in Hungary and Poland.

However, there is hope that momentum can be regained in the aftermath of the COVID crisis, and the pursuit of sustainable development (‘for all’) to be re-centred in the global political arena. The health of our planet and the lives of many in the least developed areas of the globe are likely to depend on it.  

A key agreement that is helping make the climate change SDG goal a reality is the Paris Agreement. Read about what it means and how it hopes to make carbon neutrality possible by 2050. 

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