The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is complex and not what you'd call an easy read. And that's just one of the reasons why the 2030 Agenda has struggled to gain public attention. But it's important, and so German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will be attending the SDG Summit from September 18 to 19 in New York, to demonstrate just how vital the 2030 Agenda is to Germany.
The 2030 Agenda consists of 17 ambitious SDGs, also known as Global Goals. Adopted by all UN member states in 2015, the plan lays out no less than a new definition of global prosperity: Instead of being determined by income per capita, future economic growth is meant to be ecologically sustainable.
This is why the implementation of the SDGs is tightly linked to the Paris Agreement on climate change. The goals are intended to support national economies across the world in creating sustainable and low-emission environments for businesses and people.
The SDGs address three dimensions: social, economic and environmental sustainability. They include pledges to combat global hunger and poverty, to improve access to quality education and affordable clean energy, to reduce social inequality and much more.
Setbacks due to COVID pandemic, Ukraine war
"At first, we made good progress, but then the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine set us back," said Bärbel Kofler, parliamentary state secretary in Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The global number of people living in extreme poverty had sunk from nearly 2 billion in 1991 to some 650 million in 2019. But following the pandemic, this number has gone back up. Inflation and rising costs in the wake of the Ukraine war have only deepened the wealth gap.
Stop-and-go grain deliveries from the Black Sea region have placed added strain on food security in many parts of the world. And monthslong school closures during the pandemic have exacerbated global educational inequality.
This is why Kofler believes the 2030 Agenda needs new momentum. "As I traveled through the African continent, Asia and Southeast Asia, [I saw that] higher prices for food and fertilizers were a key issue. Of course, the increase is also linked to climate change. But it is particularly linked to the war in Ukraine, and the overall state of energy prices."
Taken together, Kofler said, these factors had slowed the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
Winds of change for a better world?
Now, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has gotten involved. He has repeatedly urged UN member states to deliver on their pledges to support the world's most vulnerable people, communities and nations. He has emphasized that it requires leadership and courageous action to create a global economy that benefits all people.
Guterres' name is inextricably tied to the success — or failure — of the 2030 Agenda. Many see the upcoming summit in New York as a litmus test for his legacy. They hope Guterres' diplomatic skill will help push global efforts to implement the SDGs.
Germany has already pledged its support. "The 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals are a milestone for multilateral cooperation and an important compass for global action," Scholz told DW.
World Bank a forerunner for sustainable investment?
"Sustainable finance" is the strategy that Scholz is championing.
"At the SDG Summit, Germany will work toward setting the course for an accelerated implementation, for example, through reforms in the international financial architecture. Public and private financial streams should be more aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, in order to create financial capacities for social-ecological transformation," the chancellor said.
According to his plan, businesses that want to access grants, credits or investments would first have to publicly disclose the extent to which their economic activity is sustainable. This would make it possible to steer investments into ecologically and socially sustainable activities.
Another important point on the agenda is the global dismantling of inequality.
"That is one of the most underrated goals of the UN agenda," said Kofler. "It is so important, because it is connected to so many other topics — whether access to education or access to health care. ... It raises the question: Who has access to resources and energy?" she said.
In concrete terms, Kofler has called for a reform of the World Bank, which she said should become a forerunner for this global financial system reform. Kofler believes the World Bank should invest more in sustainable projects. To do this, the World Bank would need to adopt new principles guiding its financial and business models.
Global South unimpressed
While Germany is attending the SDG Summit with clear sustainability goals in mind, nations in the Global South are less enthusiastic. Many have lamented that the goals are not ambitious enough, criticizing that the goals are declarations of intent without being legally binding. This is why few believe the SDGs will be systematically implemented.
What's more, many are angry that wealthy industrial nations have broken their promises so often in the past. This includes not delivering financing pledged to support less wealthy nations in their efforts to adapt to climate change. There is widespread concern that in the current geopolitical environment, there are no real answers about how the agenda's lofty goals will be realized.
The man on top, Guterres, hasn't been able yet to soothe this feeling of unease. That's why many are looking to the SDG summit with high hopes. 2030 is only seven years away — no more than a blink of the eye, considering the massive challenges humanity must overcome until then.
This article was originally written in German.