Urgent nature action needed to salvage Sustainable Development Goals

The climate crisis, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine are threatening to stall progress on several key environmental targets under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), humanity’s blueprint for a better future, warns a new report from the United Nations.

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, released last week, details how a series of global crises have hampered the global effort to limit plastic pollution, protect endangered species, and provide clean drinking water to all humanity. It says urgent action is needed to preserve nature and rescue the global goals.

One of the major takeaways of this report is that the ocean, which is the planet’s largest eco system, is being chocked by plastic pollution. The report highlights that in 2021, an estimated 17 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the world’s ocean and this is expected to double or triple by 2040. Countries are increasingly recognizing the need to take action and at the fifth UN Environment Assembly earlier this year, agreed to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution by 2024.

UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. It was designed to address global challenges, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation and conflict. The agenda includes 17 goals and hundreds of indicators to be achieved by 2030. Many goals are linked to the environment and several are unlikely to be met at the current rate of progress, the report warned.

The report highlights that the world is facing a major climate catastrophe due to increased heatwaves, drought and apocalyptic wildfires and floods which are affecting billions of people around the globe and causing potentially irreversible damage to the Earth’s ecosystems. Despite this, national commitments are not encouraging as they point to a nearly 14 per cent increase in greenhouse emissions by 2030, instead of the sharp decline required to limit warming to meet the 1.5 °C target set out in the Paris Agreement.

“Nature underpins humanity, and we must do a better job of protecting the environment in order to have a chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

SDG Progress

As the leading global environmental authority, UNEP is the custodian for 25 sustainable development indicators across goals 68121415 and 17. These indicators cover the protection of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, and the management of chemicals and waste.

According to the report, some progress has been made under those goals, including the effort to provide clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.

The proportion of the global population using safely managed drinking water services increased to 74 per cent in 2020.

Still, two billion people were without such services, the vast majority of whom live in rural areas. And at the current rate of progress, the world will miss its goal of providing safe drinking water to everyone on the planet. To reach universal coverage by 2030, current rates of progress would need to increase fourfold.

On SDG 15 , Life on Land, the report indicates that in an effort to prevent and halt the degradation of the ecosystems, many countries are sustainably managing their forests protecting sites critical to biodiversity, and enacting national conservation legislation and policies.

Additionally, there has been progress on implementing frameworks for the sustainable use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. Of notable mention is the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity which provides a transparent legal framework  for the implementation of fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.

Nevertheless, the report points out that other opportunities are being lost and gives the example of the emergence of COVID-19, which was an opportunity to integrate biodiversity considerations into economic recovery measures and build a more viable future, but has been neglected in recovery spending.

Call for action

The report calls for collective action to rescue the SDGs and deliver meaningful progress for people and planet by 2030. It emphasizes the need for national governments and the international community to prioritize funding data and information structures in order to emerge stronger from the crisis and prepare for unknown challenges ahead.

“Indeed, as the report articulates, multi-stakeholder partnerships are critical to realize the 2030 Agenda,” said Gardner.  “UNEP is committed to working with all stakeholders to promote environmental sustainability to implement the SDGs and ensuring the health of our planet.”