Why realizing the SDGs is more urgent than ever before

Insights ahead of the 2020 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development

Published: 7 Jul 2020
Author: James Gomme
Type: Insight

Geneva, Tuesday, 7 July: Between 7 and 16 July 2020 the United Nations will be convening its annual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – its core platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In recent years, the HLPF has been accompanied by a two-week-long series of side events and discussion platforms as a range of stakeholders descend upon New York in an effort to share insights and drive progress on the SDG agenda.

This year however we are of course faced with a new reality. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to disrupt every aspect of our lives and leaving tragic consequences in its wake for many, this year’s HLPF will look significantly different, with face-to-face events massively scaling down, and the majority of discussions shifting to an online format. 

Despite this disruption and change in format, the HLPF still represents a crucial platform for collectively taking stock of global progress on the SDGs and for sharing insight around emerging challenges. This year’s HLPF again looks set to offer up a series of important insights of which all stakeholders, including business, should take note.

COVID’s impact on the SDGs

In the short term, it is clear that COVID-19 poses a significant threat to our progress on the SDGs (progress that was already lagging behind where we needed it to be, according to the UN’s 2019 SDG Report). The pandemic is still in its infancy but as it continues to spread and disrupt public life, it is clear that it will undoubtedly have severe negative impacts on poverty (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), health (SDG 3), and the global economy (SDG 8). There are also likely to be a series of negative knock-on effects on a range of other SDGs from growing inequalities (SDG 10), to disproportionate negative impacts on women (SDG 5), and education (SDG 4). And the list goes on - indeed, an analysis recently published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) as part of its 2020 Sustainable Development Report underlines an expectation that the pandemic will drive highly or moderately negative impacts on 13 of the 17 SDGs.

Therefore, while our short-term focus is rightly on how to minimize loss of life and mitigate the impact on health, wellbeing and people’s livelihoods, it is also important that we bear in mind the negative impacts to which the crisis is contributing across the broader spectrum of sustainable development and that we continue to explore the roles we can play as governments, civil society, businesses and individuals to help to mitigate these. The HLPF will provide a timely platform for us to explore these impacts in more detail.

The SDGs: a north star for recovery and response

The SDGs, and the pathway to prosperity for people and planet that they represent are, in many ways, more important than ever before. The Goals should be at the forefront of our thinking as we plan our long-term response and recovery from COVID-19; they provide us with a ready-made universal framework to help realize our collective ambition of building back better. 

However, the pandemic has also served to underline how much work we still have ahead of us to realize the SDGs. The crisis has laid bare multiple risks and fragilities across our economic, social and environmental systems and underlined in merciless fashion how far away we are from achieving some of our goals.  Moving forward, it is important that we address the vulnerabilities that have been exposed and ensure that we put the SDGs at the heart of our efforts to respond – both of which will be key topics of focus around the HLPF this year.

Business action – making the SDGs actionable while identifying fresh priorities

Against this backdrop, WBCSD continues to prioritize efforts to make the SDGs more directly actionable for business. An important part of these efforts is our engagement around SDG sector roadmaps, as we bring together companies from a range of industries including the chemicals sector, the forest sector, the electric utilities sector, the tire sector, and the oil and gas sector to explore, articulate and realize the potential of each of these industries to drive meaningful SDG impact.

At a more overarching level, WBCSD is also currently in the midst of extensive efforts to refresh Vision 2050, a landmark 2010 report that laid out a pathway to a world in which nine billion people are able to live well, within planetary boundaries, by mid-century. WBCSD is working together with 40 of its member companies to update this work and again provide business with a common agenda for action over the decade to come. Our updated Vision document will be available in early 2021 but in the meantime, the project has already delivered a series of resources including: an analysis of Macrotrends & Disruptions shaping 2020-2030, an exploration of The consequences of COVID-19 for the decade ahead and a study into how systems transformation happens and the role that business can play in accelerating it.

Aside from these broad collective efforts, it is also important for each individual company to continue exploring ways in which it can step up and accelerate its contribution to realizing the SDGs in the wake of COVID-19. While many companies have already gone through the process in recent years of identifying their “priority” SDGs, at this critical and unprecedented juncture it is worth returning to this process of prioritization armed with a more detailed understanding of the impacts that the pandemic is having on our capacity to realize the SDGs. Revisiting the SDGs in this new post-COVID reality may unveil new opportunities to contribute to this agenda and to a broader global recovery effort. For more insight on best practice when it comes to SDG prioritization see this article published by WBCSD earlier this year.

In this context, businesses should seek to closely follow the discussions taking place at and alongside the HLPF over the coming days – discussions which it is easier than ever to be a part of due to their virtual nature.

As part of these discussions, WBCSD and UNDESA will be hosting a Chief Sustainability Officers for SDGs event on 14 July which will provide a platform to explore the role of business in helping to drive a long-term response to COVID-19 that accelerates the emergence of systemic transformations with exponentially positive consequences for people and planet. We look forward to continuing the virtual discussion with you then!

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