Today, nature seems to be sending us a message. Constant Californian wildfires and Filipino typhoons scream out that change needs to happen and it needs to happen now. And if there’s anyone trying to keep up with nature’s request, it’s the United Nations. The organization has been leading the battle for sustainability from the very beginning. Indeed, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development epitomizes its engagement in the fight for a better future.
Focusing on progressing towards a better world through a sustainable model, the 2030 agenda consists of 17 sustainable development goals. Each nation is expected to reach these SDGs, and the due date is creeping in. As we are only eight years away from the deadline, it might be time to start asking questions. Will we be able to fulfill the 2030 agenda? Was this ever possible? How did COVID-19 affect the progress towards these goals? And what role might businesses play in all of this?
The 2030 Agenda In A Nutshell
The History Behind It
In 1992, Agenda 2, the predecessor to the 2030 Agenda, was born at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It consisted of a plan of action for countries to follow. Its objective was to collectively build a better future for both people and the environment. Then came the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) at the Millenium Summit in 2000. Once again, the goal was to create a plan of action to eradicate extreme poverty by 2015.
Twelve years later, at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Member States decided to launch a new project: the SDGs. These were formally crafted in 2015 when the 2030 Agenda was officially put in place. The 17 SDGs build upon the MDGs. Indeed, the Agenda’s goal is to end poverty through education, health and economic growth, all while tackling environmental issues.
The Sustainable Development Goals
- No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
- Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
- Good Health and Well-Being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
- Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
- Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
- Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
- Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
- Decent Work and Economy Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
- Industry Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.
- Reduced Inequalities: Reduce inequality within and among countries.
- Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
- Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
- Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
- Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
- Life on Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
- Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
- Partnerships for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
Surely, the world has been working to achieve these objectives since its establishment in 2015. In fact, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development annually reviews its progress. And there has indeed been some progress.
The 2030 agenda in practice
The 2021 Sustainable Development Report indicates a general rise in the SDG index from 2015 to 2019. The Index assesses each country’s performance on the SDGs, so a rise means progress. Certainly, the number of people living in extreme poverty decreased by 1.4% between 2015 and 2018.
Furthermore, as the world advances towards digitization, access to broadband connections has significantly improved. This is also the case for access to transport infrastructure. Hence, before COVID-19 hit, SGD 1 and SGD 9 seemed substantially closer than ever before.
SDGs And The Environment
Yet not all has been good. Progress towards SDGs 12-15 has proven slow to say the least. Their stagnation is linked to the world’s continuous insistence on turning a blind eye to climate change. However, that’s not to say there hasn’t been some effort.
In 2014, Climate Action Tracker estimated that the world would warm by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Such warming has long been deemed absolutely catastrophic, so nations have tried to avoid it at all costs. And they’ve apparently succeeded, as, this year, Climate Action Tracker estimated warming of 2.9 degrees Celsius by 2100. This points to a genuine shift, which ought to be celebrated. The Paris climate agreement, the impressive advancement of clean energies, the decreasing importance of carbon power. The European Union’s effort to phase out fossil fuels and Indonesia’s struggle to curb deforestation. It all has made a difference.
Sadly, however, it isn’t enough. Trump and Bolsonaro constructed significant barriers that put a halt to environmental progress. Yet that is not all. 2.9 degrees Celsius might not be as bad as 4, but it’s still far from positive. New estimates predict that such a warming would lead to massive sea-level rise, thus endangering the wellbeing of millions.
Contradictions: Growth and the Environment
Unfortunately, the 2030 Agenda’s shortcomings do not stop there. With its focus on sustainability, the strategy encompasses not only the environment but also the economic and social sides. So, the SDGs look not only to preserve the planet’s environmental harmony but also to spur economic growth.
Surely, goal 8 ambitiously suggests that least developed countries should attain a 7% annual GDP growth. Simultaneously, it asks for climate action. So while one directs towards old, polluting models of industrial growth, the other suggests prioritizing the environment. The push towards two opposite directions suggests premature failure. With contradiction at its root, it’s hardly surprising to see that progress towards the 2030 Agenda has been slow.
There are specific ways in which nations are meant to trace the progress towards SDGs. Nevertheless, due to different budgetary and logistical capacities, some states have found themselves having to recur to other methods. The result? We don’t really know how well the world is doing in terms of reaching its goals by 2030. It’s difficult to draw comparisons if different states are using different indexes to measure the progress towards the same goal.
While it might not seem like it, that is a problem of great significance. A lack of data necessarily means a lack of knowledge regarding the effectiveness of a specific approach. And if comparing is not possible, then there is nothing for nations who are lagging behind to strive towards. The informational gaps that currently prevail in the tracking of the SDGs thus constitute a great hindrance to their fulfillment.
Finally, there is the idea that the SDGs are perhaps too broad to be effective. There has been great debate over this topic, from the very beginning. A lack of specificity allows for much mobility in terms of what to do and how to do it. While that permits nations to adopt the strategies that suit them best, it also entails a greater margin of error.
Additionally, critics have pointed out how the very scale of the SDGs might prevent some from even trying. Having eradicating poverty as a goal might be noble. Still, it sets nations up to fail, as well as erodes the UN’s credibility in the long run.
The SDGs and COVID-19
Finally, there are the great obstacles that the COVID-19 pandemic put in the world’s path towards the 2030 Agenda. The 2021 SDGs Report is sadly filled with recountings of how the pandemic led to regression instead of progress.
For example, COVID-19 reverted advancements towards good health and quality education. Surely, health systems have collapsed and millions of students are still kept out of school. Furthermore, spending more time at home means that women are substantially more exposed to domestic violence than before. Women’s empowerment has hence taken a few steps back. Then there are the millions of people that COVID-19 pushed into poverty and hunger.
If there were significant barriers in the progress towards the 2030 Agenda before the pandemic, they now seem insurmountable. Some have even suggested subjecting the plan of action to a transformative process. Setting a more specific focus and putting a greater emphasis on the environment are amongst some of the suggestions.
As the world opens its eyes to the possibility of refining the 2030 Agenda, it is essential to think of the strategy as a joint effort. The urgency of climate change, poverty and inequality suggest that states should not be left to their own devices. This is precisely where businesses come in.
What Have Businesses Got to Do With It?
We currently find ourselves in an era of economic liberalism. Companies and businesses have great freedom and states intervene very little. Henceforth, we cannot expect the state to do all the work. If the world is to change for the better, companies need to put in some effort too.
There is no denying that companies are linked to much of what we must change. Fast fashion’s disastrous social and environmental consequences are only an example of that. So if we expect any sort of change to take place, businesses must transform the way in which they operate. The good thing is that they already are.
Siemens’ data suggests that businesses are rapidly undertaking four approaches to align with the values of the future. It seems that they are engaging in decarbonization, digitalization, increasing resource efficiency, and striving towards a holistic impact. These elements will allow companies to become environmentally friendly and conscious of their social impact. Evidently, this means great progress in the fulfillment of the SDGs.
Still, for the effect to be consequential, new businesses must also pledge to follow the four previously mentioned pillars. The new needs to align with what the future will look like. It is essential for entrepreneurs to take into account the 2030 Agenda when crafting their businesses. Especially if they want to be left behind.
It will be perhaps in that way that we will manage to reach the sustainable development goals. There is no denying there are great obstacles to overcome. But it is possible that, with the help of businesses, states will manage to balance out the SDGs’ flaws.
Like this article? Check out the 2022 sustainable goals for fashion.