Since its inception in 2015, the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has provided a blueprint for shared prosperity in a sustainable world — a world where all people can live productive, vibrant and peaceful lives on a healthy planet.
According to recent reports prepared for this year’s annual United Nations General Assembly held last month in New York, progress is being made in some critical areas and some favourable trends are evident.
For example: extreme poverty has declined considerably; the under-5 mortality rate fell by 49 per cent between 2000 and 2017; immunisations have saved millions of lives; most of the world’s population now have access to electricity and countries are taking concrete actions to protect the planet.
Other examples include: marine protected areas have doubled since 2010; countries are working concertedly to address illegal fishing; 186 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change, and almost all have communicated their first nationally determined contributions; about 150 countries have developed national policies to respond to the challenges of rapid urbanisation, and 71 countries and the European Union now have more than 300 policies and instruments supporting sustainable consumption and production.
A wide range of other actors — international organisations, businesses, local authorities, the scientific community and civil society — have engaged with the SDGs in a manner that generates great hope for the coming decade.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres assures us that the UN, for its part, is working hard to be better equipped to meet the needs of governments to respond to this integrated and transformative agenda.
Notwithstanding that progress, he identifies many areas that need urgent collective attention.
Most important, the natural environment is deteriorating at an alarming rate: Sea levels are rising; Ocean acidification is accelerating.
The past four years have been the warmest on record. One million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction and land degradation continues unchecked. We are also moving too slowly in our efforts to end human suffering and create opportunity for all.
Our goal to end extreme poverty by 2030 is being jeopardised as we struggle to respond to entrenched deprivation, violent conflicts and vulnerabilities to natural disasters. Global hunger is on the rise and at least half of the world’s population lacks essential health services.
More than half of the world’s children do not meet standards in reading and mathematics, and only 28 per cent of persons with severe disabilities received cash benefits.
Women in all parts of the world continue to face structural disadvantages and discrimination.
With just over a decade left until the target date of 2030, the SDG Summit — the first High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) to convene under UN General Assembly auspices since the SDGs were adopted, reviewed world progress in implementing the 2030 Agenda and called for “accelerated action” on 10 commitments, beginning with “leaving no one behind”.
A HLPF declaration reads, “we intend to see the goals and targets met for all nations and peoples, and for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first”.
Other commitments are related to financing; national implementation; strengthening institutions; bolstering local action; reducing disaster risk and building resilience; international cooperation and partnership; science, technology and innovation; data and statistics for the SDGs; and strengthening the HLPF.
Almost all the countries reporting to the world body tried to paint an optimistic picture of where they were in now, a mere 11 years from 2030.
Malaysia seeks to accomplish all the UN SDGs while balancing the needs and wellbeing of its people, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said.
“To a certain extent, we have achieved (some of the goals), and we need to do more. But Malaysia must continue to develop, and our people need development and good infrastructure.
“Good infrastructure sometimes will cause some loss of land and impact the environment. When we need to build lakes and dams, we will be forced to cut down some trees,” he said at the SDG Summit Leaders’ Dialogue.
He said Malaysia had also met its commitment on forest cover with 53 to 55 per cent of the country’s land area still covered by natural forests.
“The world expects all the carbon dioxide produced to be absorbed by forests in Malaysia and elsewhere. We will try to sustain our forests for as long as possible... nevertheless we will need land over time for human settlement.
“Malaysia will try its best to achieve the sustainable goals, although we have a need to do certain things which may cause a lot of problems for the environment. But we will try our very best to achieve the goals,” he said.
Let’s hope nations heed the call of Guterres for a decade of action to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.
“We must regain the trust of the people,” he said, “and respond to the experience of alienation generated by the current model of globalisation.”
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and a former official of the United Nations University.