As the annual General Assembly summit approaches, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), released the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 (GSDR) entitled, “The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development.” Although the Report is supposed to be officially launched at the upcoming Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Summit 2019, it was made available Wednesday, September 11. The Report was requested by all the UN member countries in 2016 in order to keep informed for the 2019 SDG Summit. It was drafted by fifteen scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The Global Sustainable Report 2019 was presented by a panel during a press conference at UN Headquarters in NYC on September 11, 2019. The panel included Shantanu Mukherjee, Chief of the Integrated Policy and Analysis Branch of the Division for Sustainable Development of the UN DESA, along with Co-chairs – Peter Messerli, Director of the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and Endah Murniningtyas, former Deputy Planning Minister of Indonesia.
The purpose of the Report was to evaluate the progress made towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda thus far and according to what was presented, it doesn’t bode well. The scientists found that the current development model doesn’t consider the synergies and tradeoffs between the different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the potential negative repercussions. As the co-chair Messerli put it, “We are living in a world which is hyper-connected as we have not known it 20 years ago” and the SDGs connect correspondingly. He gave an example of the interventions on food security to improve the agricultural system – it feeds people and helps to move them out of poverty, but it also comes with negative effects, such as biodiversity loss and a 29 percent increase of greenhouse gases. Therefore, the co-chair stressed that “business as usual is not an option.”
Furthermore, the current blueprint for development is just not sustainable. According to the Report, in an effort to increase economic growth, the consumption of material goods is being increased. However, if we continue down this path, the global use of materials will double from 89 Gigatons in 2017 to 167 Gigatons in 2060. This also means increased greenhouse emissions and other toxicities.
Another sobering example was given by Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen during the press conference. According to Richardson, there are 9 to 10 billion people that need to be fed, and at the moment there is enough food to feed all of those people, but currently one third of our food supply is thrown away. If we were to upscale what we have today to feed this population, it would mean an increase in greenhouse emissions of about 90 per cent, and it would require 50 per cent more land area for farming. As Richardson pointed out, we already use the equivalent of North and South America to raise animals and to produce food to feed them. Therefore, if we are trying to meet SDG 15, which is centered around biodiversity on land, Richardson insists that we are not in the position to increase land use by 50 per cent, and if we are to meet the Paris Agreement, then we cannot increase greenhouse emissions neither.
So as the co-chair Messerli posed the question, “if everything is connected to everything, how do we move forward?” Well, the Report suggests six entry points where countries can take concrete action through the implementation of four levers. There is still hope for a sustainable future, but the way that things are being done needs to be drastically changed and it needs to be done strategically. The Report suggests that the transformations must be done primarily in “human activities, including food, energy, consumption and production, and cities,” and can be coordinated by “governments, business, communities, civil society and individuals.” Most importantly, science needs to be backed in every aspect; this means reading and believing in the science, and then investing in it and providing access for those who want to educate themselves.
This action needs to be taken immediately as the current progress that has been made in the last twenty years is in danger of going backwards, especially as inequalities continue to widen and the environment continues to deteriorate. While developments continue to improve the lives of millions, millions of others are being left behind. According to the Report, “At present, approximately 2 billion people suffer from food insecurity and 820 million people are undernourished. At the same time, overweight rates are growing in almost all regions of the world, with global numbers reaching 2 billion overweight adults and 40 million children under the age of five.” The energy gap is no better as, “Close to 1 billion people are without access to electricity, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and more than 3 billion people rely on polluting solid fuels for cooking, causing an estimated 3.8 million premature deaths each year.”
I can only hope that these statistics may be as alarming to those leaders who hear of them during the upcoming Summit, as they were to me. The Report provides the tools that can be implemented to make concrete and immediate strides in the right direction within the next decade; however, it is left to those in power to find the will to bring change into their communities and into their homes.