Expert voices Vol 23, No. 10 - October 2019

Gathering storms and silver linings – what’s holding back SDG progress?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently called for the next ten years to become a decade of action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But in a rapidly changing world, ten years is a very long time. How can we plan for a future that will be drastically different from the present? UN DESA’s latest report – the Sustainable Development Outlook – tries to answer this question by analysing the megatrends that will shape our world over the next decade and studying their impact on our chances to achieve the global goals. We talked to the report authors. 

In your report, subtitled “Gathering storms and silver linings,” you mention climate change, rising inequalities and economic insecurities as some of the “storms.” Are these the challenges we should address most urgently to achieve the SDGs?

Hamid Rashid: “As we present in the report, SDGs are facing significant headwinds. We cannot afford to ignore them. It is an imperative that we address the mutually reinforcing challenges of inequality and insecurity to address the existential threat of climate change. We need comprehensive approaches, plans and strategies to address high and rising levels of inequality, which is the root of many evils in societies. Inequality – like poverty – is multidimensional.

Our focus should not be just focus on income inequality. We must also address inequality in access and opportunities, which exacerbates economic uncertainties and insecurity. Taming inequality is a must for winning the war against climate change and also for achieving all the SDGs.”

You also discuss the vicious cycle of climate change, violent conflicts, displacement, and nationalism. Can you explain how it works?

Nazrul Islam: “Yes, a vicious cycle may emerge. It may work in the following way. Climate change, either by itself or by causing conflicts, has become a driver of unregulated migration, which is causing political backlash in many developed countries, fomenting nationalism and encouraging withdrawal from multilateral efforts aimed at solving global problems.

However, weakening of the multilateral efforts can only aggravate climate change and conflicts, increasing the pressure for migration, thus leading to a vicious cycle. The danger of such a vicious cycle is real. The Sustainable Development Outlook draws attention to this danger so that it can be prevented.”

On the other hand, you point to new, frontier technologies as the “silver lining.” Can technology really save us?

Hiroshi Kawamura: “Yes, it can. We have accumulated enough scientific knowledge that is backed by a large amount of data. We have developed frontier technologies that transform the knowledge into real-life applications. And we have gained a large pool of experience where these technologies have applied for various purposes in many different situations.

The Sustainable Development Outlook shows several new technologies that have already demonstrated their capabilities, or solid potential, for advancing SDGs in the areas of decent housing, sustainable agriculture, public health and energy security. With stronger political will, greater public support and larger public and private funding, new technologies can be applied in wider geographical areas in many different SDG areas. The silver lining can be even brighter and shield even larger areas when frontier technologies are employed more widely, effectively and efficiently.”

In conclusion, should the findings of your report fill us with hope or with caution?

Hamid Rashid: “The report is a wake-up call for all us. It is also a call to action. What we need is cautious optimism, not complacency. The challenges outlined in the report are looming large. Ignoring – or going about business as usual – will not make them disappear. The report, we believe, makes a compelling case for bold and urgent actions to overcome these existential.”

Access more information and download a preview of the report here. The complete report will be available online on 10 October 2019.

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