Sustainable Development

'We are unstoppable' - what we learned at our sustainability summit in New York

The youth climate movement isn't going anywhere, said Indonesian activist Melati Wijsen. Image: World Economic Forum

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Sustainable Development

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

In 2015, global leaders agreed on a set of 17 goals - the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - that would help to build a better world for people and the planet by 2030.

So, how are we doing, and how can we speed things up a bit? These are the questions the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact summit set out to answer when it took place on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23-24 September.

The meeting brought together over 1,000 leaders from government, business and civil society to help find solutions to major challenges around climate change, health, social inclusion and technology.

This is what happened.

'We are unstoppable'

The youth climate movement isn't going anywhere - that was the message from Indonesian activist Melati Wijsen in the co-chairs session on day one.

Wijsen is the co-founder (alongside her sister) of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, which has led successful campaigns to ban plastic bags, straws and styrofoam on her home island of Bali.

The 18-year-old spoke passionately about the role of young people in finding solutions to the climate crisis. This, of course, was just a few days after millions of young people swarmed the streets in cities all over the world in an effort to pressure governments to take meaningful action against climate change.


On the same day that 16-year-old Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg told world leaders at the UN "we'll be watching you", Wijsen delivered an equally passionate message to delegates at #SDI19. It didn't go unnoticed, with participants in numerous sessions throughout the meeting lining up to express their admiration for - and solidarity with - the young activists.

'We are in a battle of a lifetime', said Chile's president

One world leader who was watching the youth climate protests with great interest was Chilean President Sebastián Piñera Echenique, who delivered a speech on the first day of #SDI19.

“We are the first generation to suffer the consequences of climate change and the last that can act to avoid tragedy,” he said. “Young people are pushing us to go faster and farther. It is absolutely necessary. Message received.”


Chile will of course host the next big UN climate conference, COP25, the annual gathering to assess how we're doing in the fight against climate change. COP25 will take place in Santiago in December.

President Piñera told delegates that there has been a global change in attitude towards the threat of climate change. “Here in New York, what I have seen is that governments and communities alike recognize the responsibility we have,” he said, noting that 66 countries (including Chile) have now committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

Chile is aggressively moving to fully decarbonize its energy mix, to migrate all public transport to electric power from fossil fuels, to set strict energy standards in all sectors and to fight deforestation, Piñera said.


2019's top 40 social innovators

For over 20 years, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has recognized social entrepreneurs who use sustainable business models and promote social progress.

This year, the Schwab Foundation has expanded its remit to recognize and support "social innovators" who are accelerating our progress towards the SDGs. The first 40 of these were announced at #SDI19.

Take a closer look at this community of compassionate, values-driven leaders - here's a video showcasing the work of one of these brilliant innovators.


A Clean Air Fund was launched

On the second day of #sdi19, the Forum launched its partnership with the Clean Air Fund as part of the UN Climate Summit.

The fund aims to support governments, civil society, the health sector and businesses to accelerate solutions to air pollution.

It's urgently needed. The WHO estimates that air pollution affects more than 90% of the world’s population, leading to trillions of dollars in costs, particularly in healthcare and reduced labour productivity, and millions of deaths every year.

"Clean air is a human right and we need to fight for that right," said Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund.

You can read more about the work of the fund in this blog by Burston.


Colombian President Ivan Duque doubled down on defending the Amazon

In a year when unprecedented numbers of fires have destroyed thousands of hectares of rainforest in the Amazon Basin, Colombian President Ivan Duque pointed to global warming as the primary culprit behind the devastation.

“Before we go talking about the Amazon, before we get to talking about the tropical forest, let’s look into the major problem which has to do with climate change and its major effects,” he said.

"We can not politicize the fires," Duque added, before calling for a regional solution to protect the Amazon and fight climate change.

Colombia is committed to reforestation, the President said. The country plans to plant 180 million new trees by 2022 and has set a goal of 70% renewable energy by 2030.

Image: World Economic Forum

A global survey showed 74% of people are aware of the SDGs

Three out of four adults (74%) globally have some awareness of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, according to a survey commissioned by the Forum.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos, asked almost 20,000 people aged between 16 and 74 from 28 countries how familiar they were with the SDGs and which they thought were the most important.

A large gap exists between the 28 countries. In Turkey, for example, 92% of respondents have heard of the SDGs, with 56% either very familiar or somewhat familiar. Likewise in China, 90% have heard of the SDGs, including 52% who were either very or somewhat familiar.

By contrast, Great Britain and Japan ranked as the two countries that are least familiar, with 51% of respondents in both countries having never heard of them. These two countries were closely followed by the United States, home of the UN, where 50% have never heard of them.

For more on the survey's main findings, take a look at this article.

Mission Possible

The Forum also launched its Mission Possible Platform to support public and private sector partners working on the transition towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Here's a blog by Emily Farnworth, head of climate change at the Forum, which explains how it all works - and here's a video introducing the platform:


And a whole lot more besides...

Don't forget that you can still participate in our #sustainableworld video campaign, browse all our pictures from #SDI19, re-live our rolling coverage of the meeting and read our collection of blogs related to the key themes discussed here in New York. Thanks for joining us!

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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