In 2015, the United Nations wrote a to-do list to address the world’s biggest problems – designed to tackle everything from poverty to the oceans – and lift people up by 2030 without damaging the planet.
So how’s that list looking now? The UN recently published a report with an update on each of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?
It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.
It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.
The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.
The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.
The good news is that there’s been considerable progress in areas like health of the under-5s, access to electricity and countries taking action against climate change.
But there are many areas that demand what UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls “urgent collective action”.
Crucially, the impacts of climate change will have a knock-on effect on several of the goals, including those aimed at reducing hunger and inequality, and improving access to water – effectively moving the goalposts if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions now.
Here’s a brief look at the progress of each goal.
1. We’re not on track to end extreme poverty
Although the number of those living in extreme poverty – on less than $1.90 a day – is still dropping, the pace has slowed.
There are remaining pockets of extreme poverty - particularly countries in sub-Saharan Africa affected by conflict, climate change and political upheaval - that will be a real challenge to overcome.
More than 1 billion people have lifted themselves out of poverty since 1990, when 36% of the world’s population was in extreme poverty. But baseline projections show that 6% will still be living in extreme poverty in 2030.
2. Hunger is affecting more people
The number of people without enough to eat has been growing since 2014 – with an estimated 821 million undernourished in 2017, up from 784 million in 2015 – due to economic slowdowns, conflict, and climate-induced price hikes.
Among children, chronic undernutrition causes stunting, puts them at greater risk of dying of common infections and affects cognitive development.
Although the number of stunted children has been falling since 2000, 22% of the global population of under-5s were still chronically undernourished in 2018, with three-quarters of those living in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
3. Millions of people are more healthy
Child survival is a success story, with millions of children more likely to survive today than in 2000. The under-5 mortality rate fell by 49%, from 77 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 39 deaths in 2017.
Maternal mortality rates have also dropped, and vaccinations have helped in the fight against infectious diseases. But half the world’s population is still without access to essential health services.
4. There’s a global learning crisis
More than half of all children and adolescents worldwide (an estimated 617 million) cannot read or do maths to the minimum level of proficiency – with knock-on effects for their future.
“The learning crisis not only threatens an individual’s ability to climb out of poverty, it also jeopardizes the economic future of entire nations as they struggle to compete in a global marketplace with less-than-skilled human resources.”
There’s been progress in adult literacy, but 750 million adults still cannot read and write a simple sentence – and two-thirds of those are women.
5. Things are improving for women. But more needs to be done
The world is generally a better place for women today as gender equality is increasingly on government agendas.
But women are still underrepresented in managerial positions and at all levels of political leadership and many are denied decision-making power.
They’re still subjected to violence and practices like female genital mutilation that strip them of their dignity and erode their wellbeing – and women and girls in at least 90 countries spend roughly triple the time men do on unpaid care and domestic work.
6. Millions still don’t have access to basic drinking water
There have been improvements – between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of those with access to “safely managed drinking water” rose from 61% to 71%. But in 2017, 785 million people still lacked basic drinking water services.
In 2017, an estimated 3 billion were unable to wash their hands hygienically at home.
7. Energy is becoming more sustainable – and widely available
Electrification is one of the SDG success stories: 89% of the global population now has access to electricity, up from 87% in 2015.
But there’s still a big urban-rural divide, with the majority of the 840 million without electricity living in rural areas.
We’re also making progress in the transition to renewables, with the share of greener energy growing and the international financing in developing countries rising sharply.
8. Slow economic growth is impacting on progress
Globally, real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita – an indication of the average living standard –- has increased and unemployment has returned to pre-financial crisis levels.
But real GDP growth in least developed countries (LDCs) dropped by half between 2007 and 2017.
And in 2018, one-fifth of young people globally were not in education, employment or training, impacting on their future – and the future progress of their countries.
9. Global infrastructure is improving but industrialization is slowing
Industrialization in LDCs is not progressing fast enough to meet the 2030 target, and the growth of manufacturing slowed in 2018.
Global spending on research and development has hit $2 trillion, but there are huge disparities between countries, with five times as much investment in North America and Europe as in sub-Saharan Africa.
By 2018, 96% of the world's population lived within range of a mobile signal but many are unable to afford the means to access this.
10. Income inequalities still persist, even as income increases for the poorest
In more than half of the 92 countries with comparable data, income grew quicker for the poorest 40% of the population than the national average.
But in many countries, the top 1% are receiving an increasing share of income.
11. Cities are growing faster than we can cope with
By 2030, it is forecast that 60% of the world’s population will inhabit cities – putting further pressure on services and infrastructure and leading to more people living in slums.
Slums and informal settlements are now home to more than 1 billion people, with the vast majority (80%) living in three regions and more in Asia than the rest of the world combined.
Air pollution has also reached dangerous levels: In 2016, 90% of urban residents were living in areas where pollution was above the World Health Organization’s safe levels.
12. Consumption is unsustainable
Economic growth and industrialization has taken a toll on natural resources and the environment, and more needs to be done to move towards a sustainable, circular economy.
The global material footprint – the amount of raw materials needed to meet our consumption demands – has more than doubled since 1990.
The generation of waste is growing and one-third of the food produced each year is lost or wasted, mostly in developed countries.
13. Climate change is the greatest challenge to sustainable development
To limit global warming to 1.5°C – and avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change – by 2030, global carbon emissions need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels.
Governments are stepping up their efforts: By May 2019, 182 countries and the European Union had set their first nationally determined contributions, and are increasing financing to tackle climate change.
14. We’re doing more to protect the oceans
Oceans make up Earth’s biggest ecosystem, providing food and livelihoods and helping to soak up carbon dioxide. But they’re suffering from human impact.
Acidification, caused by increasing CO2 levels, is threatening marine life and fisheries, and the ocean’s capacity to absorb more CO2.
But countries are doing more to protect the oceans, including: improving coastal water quality, stabilizing fish stocks, and doubling the extent of marine protected areas since 2010.
15. Species are more at risk of extinction
The Red List Index – which tracks the planet’s species – shows the risk of extinction has increased in the past 25 years. This is due to unsustainable agricultural practices, climate change and deforestation.
Forests are still declining but at a slower rate. Between 2010 and 2015, the net annual rate of forest loss was around 25% slower than between 2000 and 2005.
16. No substantial advances have been made towards ending violence
Goal 16 is aimed at promoting a peaceful world, with justice for all, that enables sustainable development. But achieving it is still a long way off – and those who are trying to help are being killed.
Between January and October 2018, an average of nine people on the front lines of building a more inclusive, fairer society (including journalists and human rights defenders) were murdered each week, an increase from seven in 2015-2017.
17. Support for the SDGs is growing. But development assistance is falling
Achieving such an ambitious list of goals is possible, but only with financial support and international cooperation.
Overseas aid or Official Development Assistance, which is the biggest source of external financing for LDCs, dropped 2.7% to $149 billion between 2017 and 2018.
Another critical factor in spreading the word and achieving the goals is access to the internet.
More than 80% of people in developed countries were online in 2018, compared to just 20% in LDCs, so there’s more to do to foster an inclusive global information society.