More from UNDESA Vol 23, No. 06 - June 2019

Step by step – working towards sustainable development for all

Our world is facing mounting challenges that no one country can face alone. By connecting global policies and national action in the economic, social and environmental areas, UN DESA works with nations across the globe to find solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems. Guided by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the department helps countries in their efforts to achieve sustainable development for all.

This year alone, the department is bringing the global community together for several high-level events aimed at accelerating action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and boosting positive change. It kicks off with the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development on 9-18 July and continues in September during UN high-level week with the SDG Summit (24-25 September), the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development (26 September) and the Samoa Pathway High-level Mid-term Review (27 September).

Counting everyone, because everyone counts
UN DESA does much more than bringing countries together. The department is a key provider of essential data, information and analysis for the international community to make informed decisions on development issues.

UN DESA keeps track of the world population to help countries plan and to make sure everyone is counted. Where is the population growing the fastest? How are population trends affecting the achievement of the SDGs? The global community will find out on 17 June 2019, when the department will launch its biennial report on the latest demographic trends, the World Population Prospects 2019.

Similarly, UN DESA collects and analyzes data, working closely with national statistical offices around the globe to strengthen statistical capacities, ensuring that no one is left uncounted. Based on this thorough work, the department leads the preparation of the annual Sustainable Development Goals Progress Report, tracking advancements and identifying gaps in our global efforts to achieve the SDGs. Stay tuned for the next SDG Progress Report to be launched on 9 July 2019.

Ahead of the curve
In a similar fashion, and looking through a sustainable development lens, the department monitors and analyzes global economic trends as well as new frontier technologies, often staying ahead of the curve. This was the case in the 1980s when UN DESA warned about the debt crisis and in the late 2000s when the department cautioned about the factors that led to the financial crisis.

The latest global economic trends were revealed in the World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) as of mid-2019 launched on 21 May. The report finds that high trade tensions and policy uncertainty continue to damage the prospects of economic growth. The department also shares regular updates on the global economy in the WESP monthly briefings.

Home of sustainable development

Within the UN system, UN DESA is the is the place where every SDG finds a home and where all actors can do their part to make sure we leave no one behind. The department leads the preparations for the annual review of the goals at the HLPF every July, supports Member States as they prepare to present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at this event, and we also provide the platforms where international actors can forge new partnerships and initiatives to spur further action on the goals. UN DESA also made a call asking the international community to share their SDG good practices and success stories. And the results are in, showcasing more than 400 projects in the department’s searchable database.

UN DESA also helps build capacities on the ground. Together with partners, the department supports more than 75 countries in building integrated, evidence-based, inclusive and well-funded national strategies and plans to implement the SDGs. Moreover, the department also works to secure financing for the goals.

Reaching those who are furthest behind first

To realize the promise of the 2030 Agenda of leaving no one behind, we need to reach the furthest behind first. UN DESA leads the way to make this happen. The department is a leading voice to promote inclusion, reduce inequalities and eradicating poverty.

This June for example, the department is organizing the 12th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Tune in on 11-13 June via UN Web TV to follow our work protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Whether by organizing major events, tracking SDG data, taking the pulse of socioeconomic trends or cutting-edge issues, or helping countries build capacity, UN DESA is there to support the international community. Step by step, the department works towards sustainable development for all.

Learn more about UN DESA’s work in our new pamphlet.

It is time to “circle back” and transform the planet

By Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director, UN Environment Programme

In India, a young entrepreneur is turning hundreds of tons of flower waste from temples into organic incense sticks, made by women. A simple, cost-effective innovation is helping generate employment, protecting our water bodies and encouraging more research into environment-friendly alternatives. In Burkina Faso, an initiative to repurpose plastic waste into clothes and other items has reduced plastic waste in dumpsites in the city of Koudougou by one-third and improved sanitation.

We have just concluded a record-breaking UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. Close to 5,000 delegates from more than 170 countries demonstrated a global political will to urgently tackle environmental challenges including the need to transform the environmental footprints of the world’s consumers and to promote the kinds of innovations I have outlined in India and Burkina Faso.

These innovations challenge the very basis of how we treat our planet. We can no longer grow now and clean up later. We have reached the planet’s limits and, as the UN Secretary-General recently reminded us, we simply cannot negotiate with nature.

But innovations also represent some good news. When we “circle back” and see value in what we discard, everybody wins: we protect nature, build livelihoods and improve the health of people. In 2017, humanity used an estimated 90 billion tons of resources. More than 50 per cent of that was dispersed or emitted as waste, while less than 10 per cent was cycled back into the economy.

The food we waste every year, due to damp warehouses, delayed shipments, or consumers who forget their leftovers in the back of the fridge – is enough to feed the world’s hungry four times over. That’s no small matter, given that we’ll probably have another two billion mouths to feed by 2050.

Our piles of discarded smartphones, washing machines, televisions and batteries contain valuable caches of copper, silver, gold, palladium, and other precious resources. But in harvesting this valuable resource, we can generate less carbon emissions than compared to mining the earth for fresh minerals.

And thanks to some innovative thinkers, ocean plastic is now a viable raw material that’s being used to make everything from boats, running shoes, sunglasses, skateboards to carpet tiles.

If countries deliver on all that was agreed in Nairobi and implement the resolutions, we could take a big step towards a new world order where we no longer grow at the expense of nature but instead see people and planet thrive together.

Someone very wise once said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

So, what does this mean practically for us? It means altering consumption habits and confronting conundrums like the fact that meat and dairy products use an overwhelming majority of farmland but constitute only a fraction of the calories we consume. It means governments investing heavily in sustainable solutions that restore nature and regenerate the biosphere. It means consumers holding companies accountable to invest in better and sustainable materials, processes and infrastructure. And it means being kinder to the environment in how we extract resources from nature.

Science has sounded a red alert and painted a future that we simply do not want. 2019 is a year of both urgency and opportunity and chance for all of us to transform the planet!


*The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

SDG 12 in numbers

How societies use and manage their natural resources fundamentally shapes their quality of life and the health of their environment. The world continues to use more and more natural resources. Decoupling economic growth from resource use is one of the most critical and complex challenges facing humanity today. A shift towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns will require strong national public policies, sustainable consumer behavior, and a transformation of business practices along global value chains.

In 2017, worldwide material consumption reached 92.1 billion metric tons, up from 87 billion in 2015 and a whopping 254 per cent increase from the 27 billion in 1970, with the rate of extraction accelerating every year since 2000.

The material footprint per capita is used to measure the amount of raw material extracted to meet a person’s need. The “material footprint” per capita in developing countries grew from 5 metric tons in 2000 to 9 metric tons in 2017, but it is still less than half of the value for developed countries (close to 23 metric tons in 2017).


For all categories of materials, developed countries have at least twice the per capita footprint of developing countries. In particular, the material footprint for fossil fuels is more than four times higher for developed than developing countries.

About one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted, the majority in developed countries.

By 2018, a total of 108 countries had national policies and initiatives relevant to sustainable consumption and production.

According to a recent report from KPMG, 93 per cent of the world’s 250 largest companies (in terms of revenue) are now reporting on sustainability, as are three quarters of the top 100 companies in 49 countries.

Playing with genes: The good, the bad and the ugly

Genetic technologies—the ability to manipulate and transform the properties of cells, seeds, plants, animals and even humans—are pushing the frontiers of science and offering us new hope for increasing food production, curing disease and improving the quality of life. While the upsides of genetic technologies are promising, we also need to consider the consequences—the bad, and even the ugly.

The good

We now have the knowledge and tools to address some of the most protracted challenges facing humanity, including health challenges that affect millions of people around the world. In the fight against malaria, genetic technologies are being used to develop new vaccines and enable “gene drives” that specifically target the parasite-carrying mosquitoes. The possibility of developing an effective vaccine to a disease contracted by 200 million people each year or eradicating it completely presents an enormously exciting prospect.

In food production, genetic technologies are helping farmers increase production and overcome the risk of drought, floods, and pests. There are commercially available genetically modified crops that are resistant to pests, herbicides, and to viral disease. Flood-resistant rice varieties are helping millions of farmers in South Asia, allowing higher crop yields and enhancing food security.

The bad

On the flip side, we are observing a growing “genomics divide” between those that can afford cutting-edge genetic technologies and those who cannot and are consequently left behind. Firms in developed countries own the rights to most of the innovations in genetic technologies. Furthermore, genetic therapies—one application of genetic technology—are mostly developed for rare diseases and come at high costs, ranging from $373,000 to $1 million per patient per year, making them unaffordable for most people. Clearly very few people have the means or the insurance coverage necessary to take advantage of these therapies.

In agriculture, public concern is mostly focused on the rapid spread of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the food chain, their safety and sustainability, that the gains and risks are shared equitably, and that cultural and religious beliefs are respected.

The ugly

It is not hard to imagine how genetic editing can turn ugly. Despite significant improvements, gene editing is still imprecise, which could lead to inadvertent changes to the genome. There are also concerns over the unknown, long-term safety of gene editing.

There are growing concerns regarding germline editing—modifications that can be inherited by an unborn child. In the case of germline editing of unborn children, an important question arises, that is, what constitutes informed consent? How can a future person have a voice on genetic changes that will affect them throughout their lives, and perhaps passed on to their offspring?

There is also the possibility of unforeseen ecological changes with genetic targeting of plants and animals, which may destroy an entire species or disrupt ecological balance.

The future

Genetic modification clearly demands careful consideration from policymakers, academics, private companies, and civil society. Technological advances in this area are moving faster than the regulatory capacity of most governments. Recently, scientists have joined together to call on the Member States to move swiftly to strengthen the global regulatory framework and minimize the risks of genetic technologies.

Many stakeholders would also like to see the Member States agree on a moratorium on human germline editing until the world can agree on common norms and standards. The Director-General of the World Health Organization has already responded to these concerns, establishing in March this year a new advisory committee to develop global standards for governance and oversight of human genome editing.

The Food and Agriculture Organization is another UN entity likely to play a key role in supporting the Member States in developing and adopting common norms and standards for applying genetic technologies in food production. In addition, there will be need for the Member States in the General Assembly and ECOSOC to further discuss the possible implications of genetic technologies on inequality in income, opportunities and outcomes within and across countries.


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