The plea for action by the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, came right before the beginning of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development in 2019. It is set to take place at UN Headquarters in New York from July 9 through July 18, 2019. The theme of the forum is “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.” Of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), the HLPF will focus on 6 of them in detail, including goals 4, 8, 10, 13, 16, and 17.
Kicking off the event, was the launch of The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019 at UN Headquarters on Tuesday by Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and Francesca Perucci, Chief of the Statistical Services Branch for the UN Statistics Division. The 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development was conceived in 2015. Now that we are just a decade away from the approaching deadline, the UN officials spoke of the successes and challenges in achieving the 17 goals towards a sustainable and healthy planet.
The Report is extensive, but there are a few key takeaways that were also highlighted by Secretary-General Guterres in his Foreword. According to the Report, extreme poverty has declined significantly from 10% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2018. The under-5 mortality rate fell by almost half (49%) between 2000 and 2017. Tremendous strides in administering immunizations globally have saved millions of lives. For example, deaths from measles have dropped 80% between 2000 and 2017. Additionally, electricity is now accessible by 9 out of 10 people worldwide.
Countries have also taken measures to ensure the protection of the planet. According to the Report, marine protected areas have doubled since 2010. Countries have also dealt with illegal fishing. As stated in the report, 87 countries signed the Port State Measures, the first binding international agreement on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. In addition, 186 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change. The European Union and 71 countries also have more than 300 policies and instruments to support sustainable consumption and production.
However, climate change, is causing “catastrophic” and “irreversible” damage to the environment. According to the Report, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut, global warming will continue to surpass the acceptable 1.5 degrees Celsius limit above the pre-industrial baseline. This means that sea levels will continue to rise and ocean acidification, which has already increased by 26% since pre-industrial times, will continue to accelerate. In addition, the past four years have been the warmest on record. One million plant and animal species risk extinction. Eventually, if climate action does not receive the urgent response it calls for, global warming will cause food shortages and hunger, possibly displacing 140 million people by 2050. According to the Report, global hunger is already on the rise with 821 million persons undernourished in 2017 up from the 784 million in 2015. Climate change has the potential to make many parts of the world “uninhabitable” and it will be the poorest that will suffer the consequences the most. Climate-related and geophysical disasters claimed an estimated 1.3 million lives between 1998 and 2017, as stated in the Report.
According to the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin, the other area requiring our immediate attention is “inequality among and within other countries.” He states that, “Poverty, hunger and disease continue to affect those that are the poorest and the most vulnerable.” According to the Report, at least half of the world’s population lacks essential health services. In addition, over 90 percent of maternal deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. The DESA Under-Secretary-General states that, “People living in fragile states are twice as likely to lack basic sanitation and about four times as likely to lack basic drinking water services as people in non-fragile situations.”
Although these are the two areas focused on in the report that call for our immediate action, Zhenmin points out that all of the SDGs are interrelated and that progress in one goal means advancement in another. For example, more than half of the world’s children, 617 million, do not meet standards in reading and mathematics. Research shows that if these children were to meet the standards, they would be able to climb out of poverty. Furthermore, if children were able to access clean drinking water and better sanitary conditions, their school attendance would improve.
One of the many disappointing statistics documented in the report is that from January 2018 to October 2018, the UN has recorded and verified that there have been 397 additional killings of human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists across 41 countries. There were 91 journalists and bloggers documented to have been among the victims.
At the end of the press conference on the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals Report, journalists attempted to get clarification on several issues addressed in the Report, but to no avail. For example, one reporter asked if there were particular countries where the of killing journalists and human rights defenders was most likely to occur. UN Statistics chief Francesca Perucci’s response was that the Report is supposed to show a global picture without pointing to specific countries.
We asked (watch video above, from min 55:54) about the “political will” Liu Zhenmin referred to when addressing the action that needed to be taken for climate change. According to the DESA USG, we have the money, the technology and the resources to take action, but we lack the political will. So we asked how he proposed we build the political will in the US when it is the people themselves that we have to convince, as opposed to other countries, such as China, where it is only the government that has to be persuaded to take the necessary action against climate change. Zhenmin’s response was that it was ultimately the “media [that] could help” by raising awareness.
However, we can argue that the media only delivers the news. It is up to the UN and its branches and officials to create the news. When there are journalists who are constantly probing to find out specifics that could make the news, they are given nothing of value. Instead, it is the same information delivered in the same routine manner, time and time again. It is time for new and innovative ideas to get this message of climate change (Guterres’s photo above is finally a step toward this goal) and the Sustainable Development Goals across to the general public, instead of through press conferences held in secluded rooms, whose pronouncements never reach the light of day.