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The SDGs turn 2: The journey so far

Happy birthday SDGs! It's been two years since the world pledged to work together to eliminate poverty and protect the environment. How far have we come?

Happy birthday to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which turn two this year.

Developed from what has been called the biggest consultation process in the history of the UN, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals is a set of 17 goals and 169 targets that are a blueprint for government, business and society to collaborate on reducing inequality, eradicating poverty and protecting the environment.

While two years is barely any time in the world of policymaking and sustainable development, the 2030 deadline leaves a short runway for the SDGs to take off. The world needs to act with urgency to meet these ambitious targets.

Shortly after the goals were unveiled to the world, UN under secretary general and UN  Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific executive secretary Shamshad Akhtar wrote that the Asia Pacific region is sorely in need of a sustainable transformation to tackle rising inequality and other ill-effects of development.

To do so, the region needs: sufficient financial resources; good governance and inclusive policy execution and implementation; new innovations, technology and know-how; partnerships for cooperation; and climate action.

In the 24 months since the birth of the SDGs, how has Asia—and the world—progressed towards realising these goals? Eco-Business rounds up nine stories on the SDGs published over the last two years to revisit what global leaders have to say about the goals, which countries are spearheading action on the SDGs, and the opportunities that exist in working towards a better world.

1. Confidence in UN’s global goals faltering amid slow progress - survey

Not everyone is convinced about the impact of the SDGs this far are having. A recent survey asked 113 policymakers, campaigners and executives interested in the topic about their views on the progress of the goals. The results were not encouraging. Respondents cited recent surges in protectionism, populism and terrorism as challenges to implementation.

SDG 13, which promotes action on climate change, was one of the three goals that faced the most obstacles alongside ending poverty and reducing inequality. On the flipside, the survey said humanity was making a lot of progress on ensuring access to sustainable energy and gender equality. 

2. The US$5 trillion opportunity Asian businesses cannot afford to ignore

Achieving the SDGs is not just about the feel-good factor. As the Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s report makes clear, companies that align themselves with the SDGs and serve social needs stand to make a killing in the market. The Better business, better world Asia report shows how businesses, even small firms that tend to be laggards in sustainability, can integrate the SDGs into their operations.

3. What the SDGs mean to global leaders

The business case for the SDGs aside, Eco-Business asked global leaders such as Unilever’s chief executive officer Paul Polman and UN goodwill ambassador Helen Hai, which of the 17 goals mean the most to themDirector general of the World Wide Fund for Nature, Marco Lambertini, chose Goal 14, life below water. “The ocean has been underestimated, underrated, taken for granted, more than anything else for centuries,” he said. 

4. Three start-ups aim at implementing the SDGs

A more sustainable world calls for more sustainable innovations, and that’s what a UN-organised, global SDG hackathon aimed to achieve in April this year.

Of the 90 ideas submitted, three were chosen for implementation—one for erasable, magnetic Braille slates for the blind in India; another to persuade Balinese Hindus to use biodegradable materials for religious events; and an app from London that shows shoppers a company’s environmental and social track record when they scan a label.

5. Why selling the SDGs isn’t as easy as ABC

What should be frontpage news about the bid to save humanity has gained little traction outside sustainability circles. Does the term SDG sound too much like STD? Is the 2030 target too far away? Is it too close? How can the media be better engaged? Thomson Reuters Foundation editor-in-chief Belinda Goldsmith explored why it’s important to talk about the SDGs, the difficulty in doing so, and how media coverage can lead to action. 

6. How to achieve the SDGs

Dusting off the ashes from a recently concluded civil war, Colombia is an example of how countries can still achieve the SDGs in spite of a lack of funding, says World Bank expert Mahmoud Mohieldin. Even Medellin, once the world’s “murder capital”, has made strategic investments in public transportation, education and improved security.

Other countries have found their own unique ways to integrate or measure progress on the SDGs. The Finnish have invented the Findicator system to collect data and identify missing information, and sustainability professionals have called on Australia to involve youth, ensure buildings are carbon neutral and take political leadership on the SDGs.

7. How does the Davos crowd view green infrastructure, sustainable supply chains, and conservation investment?

Climate change and the SDGs have made their way to the discussion table at the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos, Switzerland each year. This means that the SDGs are now on the agenda of some of the world’s most influential leaders, such as China’s Xi Jinping. Leaders looked at a list of factors that posed the biggest and most likely risks to the world, with extreme weather events ranking high on both scales.

The SDGs and the Paris climate agreement were cited as important goalposts for progress. To achieve the goals outlined in the treaties, the world needs to halt deforestation and build infrastructure that is resilient. “80 per cent of the funds that are required for both the SDGs and climate change are realted to sustainable infrastructure, new investment or retrofitting of old buildings,” commented Rick Samen, the WEF board member overseeing climate issues. 

8Banks, UN set standards on channelling investments for sustainable development

The unsexy but critical side to achieving the SDGs is funding. Earlier this year leading finance institutions worth a combined $6.6 trillion in assets announced the launch of the UN Environment Finance Initiative in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. The group, which includes organisations such as BNP Paribas and Australian Ethical, will channel the money they manage towards projects that support the SDGs.

9. Systems thinking: Unlocking the SDGs

Governments and businesses have made progress on attaining the Global Goals, but to move entire socioeconomic systems towards sustainability will require all parties to think about how their actions have an impact, says Stephanie Draper from Forum for the Future. Could systems thinking be the solution? 

Systems thinking means identifying the areas of action that will yield the most progress, notes Draper. For example, improving the nutrititional quality of soil would have a positive effect on the whole food system it underpins. And the Global Goals are connected—SDG 11, which talks about the sustainability of cities, is impacted by other goals such as food, energy, education, and infrastructure, which makes thinking about how the economic systems are impacted by each other important. 

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