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Christian Friis Bach

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The Executive Secretary's Blog

Turning global goals into action

Having been part of the discussions from the very start, it was also for me the culmination of a five year journey when over 150 Heads of State and Government adopted a historical set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.

The goals represent a very ambitious vision of a world with peace and security, where prosperity is truly shared, where nobody is left behind and environmental degradation is stopped and reversed. We are the first generation with the ability to eradicate extreme poverty. If successful, it will be a historic success. We are the last generation with the ability to stop climate change. If we fail, it will be a historic mistake.

Although the adoption of the goals seemed like the end of a long journey, it is only the beginning. We must now transform this vision into action.  And we must do so fast.

It is a gigantic task. The Sustainable Development Goals are broad and universal and the agenda complex and interlinked. The focus is on all countries, on all three dimensions of sustainability - economic, social and environmental – and, which is unique, also on peace and security. Therefore, the 2030 goals and targets impact not only farmers, nurses and school teachers, but also security forces, policemen and judges.

The goals also establish a vital link between poverty and under-development and over-consumption and environmental degradation. We must combat both poverty in poor countries and create sustainable consumption among the rich. The goals create a key focus on fighting inequality in the world to ensure peace and prosperity for all the world's citizens.

It is only by acknowledging and insisting on these complexities and synergies that we will succeed. We need to think globally to attract the necessary funding and rethink the way we measure economic progress and profits. Take infrastructure, where the needs are huge. This is a source of jobs that supports economic activity but it is also a necessary instrument to facilitate climate change adaptation and mitigation. Bringing together these multiple aspects will pay off. There are estimates that the additional cost of greening infrastructure globally could amount to US$ 4 trillion between 2015 and2030, but this would generate an operating saving of US$ 5 trillion. Attracting investments, promoting efficiency and ensuring that environmental and social impacts are duly considered require new ways of calculating to capture the synergies and complexities of sustainable development.  

We must think out of the box in creating new partnerships for sustainable development. The old divisions and responsibilities between the private, public and civil society needs rethinking and we must build new and effective alliances and partnerships. The good news is that it is moving in the right direction. Broad, goal-oriented partnerships have been a major force driving progress and mobilising resources in such critical areas as health, education and sustainable energy for all. However, more has to be done.

We need new ways of measuring and new sources of data, also to live up to our promise that no one is left behind. This requires disaggregated data that identifies those groups of individuals or regions within a country that require particular attention. Disaggregation is also necessary to make global goals into strong tools of advocacy in all countries.

For example, in a number of countries, reports on the implementation of the MDGs routinely highlighted that rural populations, certain regions and displaced people faced more acute problems and this contributed to mobilise attention and resources to address these special situations.  

Information is power and can engage the public in both advocacy and the implementation of solutions. Here, the Aarhus Convention on access to information and public participation is a key instrument that can help us meet the SDGs.

Improving the data, finding the right indicators and preparing statistical systems for the challenge will require a huge effort.  The good news is that a “data revolution” is under way, as technology allows us to exploit new sources of information – for example to track deforestation through satellite imagery or the progress of diseases through personal mobile communication data.

We also need to strengthen the mechanisms to review the progress made, so we can correct course when necessary. A review and follow-up mechanism is yet to be fully discussed and defined. However, an important part of this is to align the existing regional and global review mechanisms to also monitor the SDGs. At UNECE we conduct a number of review mechanisms such as Innovation Performance Reviews and Environmental Performance Reviews. They help to create action. Following the recommendations of the second Environmental Performance Review of Croatia, the authorities introduced a comprehensive package for cleaner transport. It works. We can use these existing instruments as part of a regional and global review and follow-up mechanism to track progress towards the SDGs.

Translating global commitments into concrete actions puts a strong premium on stronger international cooperation. This is needed to translate global goals into new and common norms, standards and conventions that can assist countries, citizens and companies to take action. We need to step up our cooperation to create cleaner air, safer cars and water cooperation, just to mention a few of the conventions we host at UNECE. And we must strengthen our ability to implement these conventions, norms and standards.

This also puts new pressure on the UN. While I hope the SDGs will help us to significantly change the world, I know they will help us to change the UN. We must reform, dismantle the silos and strengthen the synergies across the multiple UN organisations and entities. We must work together to establish “centres of excellence” in support of each and every SDG. It puts heavy responsibilities on all of us working at the UN. However, Member States must also do their part with funding modalities to support cooperation and less focus on individual mandates for different parts of the UN. With the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda we have one global agenda—a global mandate—and Member States must allow us to use it to shape a stronger and more effective UN.

However, when all this is said, the most decisive precondition for success is to ensure that world leaders did not only go to New York to adopt the goals but that they  returned home with the political will to develop concrete national plans on how to implement them. 15 years is not a long time, and the goals are extremely ambitious. We will only succeed if all countries develop specific and measurable national sustainability goals; and prioritize and implement concrete plans for sustainable development. Goals are good; plans are needed, as well as new ways of working.

It was a long journey to agree on the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. But the journey towards ensuring that we do indeed build new partnerships, bring peace and prosperity to all people and protect the planet is much longer.

Let us take it together.

 


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.