In August 2015, 193 countries agreed on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which replaced the millennium goals set in September 2000. At the UN Sustainable Development Summit at the end of September they were presented in New York under the name: Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 2015 was a pivotal time and went into the books as a global breakthrough year with both the climate agreement in Paris, signed in December of that year, and the agreement of the SDGs. The interconnection between the UN goals and the climate agreement is clear since SDG number 13 is specifically about climate action, and many other SDGs are related to climate and environmental conditions as well.
As we enter 2017, we are well on our way from that starting point as we have been on our path towards reaching our global goals for one and a half years. And we should be seeing movement as 2030 is actually very nearby and we are left with a mere 14 years to get a tremendous job done. So, what has been achieved so far? Where do we stand now? What can we expect in 2017 and what needs to be done to reach the goals?
Looking back on the past one and a half years, we can definitely say that the launching of the goals has had tremendous impact already. Straight after establishing the goals, the word spread quickly throughout the world and many people learned about the SDGs; the frontrunners were quickly committed and involved. This was partly due to the goals being articulated clearly thus making a uniform language for all to use. This uniform terminology had immediate impact, which was shown in the many articles, references during conferences, and pledges that soon followed.
Gathering the building blocks
2016 saw the gathering of the building blocks and the laying of groundwork, with numerous coalitions being formed. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation explained, “To realize the SDGs we need to foster a new era of collaboration and coordination.” To that end, many practical platforms were launched by the United Nations, such as the October 2016 launch of a new platform for scaling up innovative finance solutions, a platform for business solutions for 2030, and a pioneers’ program to profile SDG pioneers throughout the world, and so on. Additionally, business, industry and national coalitions and partnerships have been formed to address the SDGs on a large scale. Global business partnerships such as the Business Commission was launched by Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, during the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, to urge the private sector to make advancements on sustainable development. Unilever also joined a host of industry partners to create an open platform called Paragon, to combine their market research forces in addressing key global development and sustainability challenges. 2016 was also declared the year of green finance in the UK, with financial leaders convening to encourage sustainable investments and the divestment from polluting industries such as fossil fuels. And nations are forming pacts as well. Costa Rica, for example, is bringing together a broad cross-section of society including entrepreneurs of large and small companies as well as academics, and civil organizations - all working towards achieving dynamic links to approach their own challenges such as improving public transportation and doing so with the SDGs firmly in mind. And the Netherlands saw seventy signatories from business and civil society including AkzoNobel, Philips, numerous banks, universities, and foundations such as UNICEF all join together in a Charter to provide innovative solutions based on knowledge and technology. Also, during the Global Impact Investors’ meeting of the GIIN in Amsterdam on December 7 2016, 21 Dutch financial institutions, including ABN AMRO, presented the agenda for further collaboration and partnership platforms to Minister Ploumen. The list goes on. So, the coalitions of the willing grew fast in the last months of 2015 and 2016 and got the societal motors running.
Preparing a sound foundation
In addition to these collaborations, assessments have been done to get a clear picture of where we are now and what still needs to be achieved. Reports and research have also been done this past year on how business can contribute to achieving the goals and what new markets are opening up. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development produced an ‘SDG Compass’ to guide companies on how they can align their strategies, measure and manage their contribution to the realization of the SDGs. And the UN, together with over 6000 business leaders from all over the world, co-created a Global Opportunity Report identifying 15 new sustainable markets.
Research into business intentions and practices is being conducted as well, for example, PWC - one of the largest financial consultancy firms — surveyed nearly one thousand businesses about their plans to address the SDGs. They found that while 71% of the companies are planning how they will engage with the SDGs, only 10% are planning to assess their impact on the SDGs relevant to their industry, or even understand how to do this. Clearly there is work to be done to continue to educate and guide businesses. And while capital initiatives such as the UK’s Year of Green Finance and the Sustainable Stock Exchange initiative, which welcomed its 60th member in 2016, are developing and gaining ground, there is much more that can be done in 2017 for capital redirection. According to the 2016 World Federation of Exchanges (WFE) study, “Stock exchanges ranked pressure from investors last when noting the main motivators for introducing Environmental Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) initiatives. And the 2016 UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO survey reported that “only 10% of CEOs cited investor pressure as a driver for sustainability.”
So, as we have just crossed over the threshold to 2017 and looking back on 2016, I can see that tremendous groundwork has been done on which we can build. Groundwork in terms of collaborations started, research and insights gathered, awareness created and initiatives started. Nevertheless, let’s not be naïve: still only a small minority of businesses are really aware of the goals, and there is a need for private investment of 2.5 trillion dollars a year. So, we have only just begun our journey. Many others must help to create a sound foundation on which to build the bridge, so we can all walk the path. There is an urgent need to speed up and scale up, since the scale of our solutions must meet the scale of our goals.
Building the bridge
Let us make 2017 the year we prepare that acceleration. Let’s move on from the groundwork to building the bridge everyone can walk on. And let’s get everybody lined up to cross that bridge the following year. We need more businesses and institutions to join in as building this bridge is a huge job and it must be a firm and thorough bridge. Bear in mind, there is a long way to go: In 2014 there were 154,000,000 malnourished children in the world and the goal for 2030 is to end all forms of malnutrition. In 2000 -> 1,750,000,000 people lived in extreme poverty. In 2012 -> 900,000,000 lived in extreme poverty and the goal for 2030 is that no one lives in extreme poverty. In 2015, our worldwide economy produced 34,650,000 Kiloton Co2 emissions, which is a significant increase compared to the year 2000, while CO2 emissions should be drastically decreasing in order to limit the warming of the Earth to 2 or preferably 1.5 degrees. So, the bridge must lead to solutions for all these challenges.
2016 has been quite a year, and I recognize that we have seen a lot happen that could make us fearful, doubtful, or sceptical whether we talk about the Brexit, the US elections, or the still growing terrorist threat. But in the words of Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and the leading lady in the 2015 Paris Agreement, “We’ll transform on.” The world has chosen a sustainable course and recognized what needs to be done for the long-term benefit on our world and our people. This movement will not be stopped by political swings or any other current affairs. And do keep in mind: it is about the deeds, not the words.
If we all contribute, we will make 2017 another year to never forget, using the groundwork to build the bridge, and looking forward to us all crossing it afterwards. Building it will be rewarding and thankful. And it will be successful business-wise as well. You will see this next year when we look back to admire the bridge we have built, and we look ahead in anticipation of watching business, capital, civil society, and governments crossing the bridge we’ve built together. So, take everybody with you that you can to help meet the biggest challenge and opportunity of all times for all of us.