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SDIS21: How to Save the Planet - What are the challenges in making the planet more sustainable?

A flooded street is pictured after Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, in Laplace, Louisiana, U.S. August 30, 2021. REUTERS/Marco Bello - RC2RFP9QSW24

Climate change is dire – and hurts our ability to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Image: REUTERS/Marco Bello

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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SDG 06: Clean Water and Sanitation

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

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  • With global temperatures rising, the climate threat is dire.
  • Significant work is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reverse biodiversity loss and invest in renewable energy and climate financing.
  • Without urgent action, climate change hurts our ability to meet all 17 SDGs.
  • The Forum is convening its annual Sustainable Development Impact Summit on 20-23 September.

If 2020 was defined by COVID-19, then 2021 is so far defined by climate change and the need for urgent action – yesterday.

The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report – which says the planet is warming even faster than we thought – comes during a year characterized by extreme, climate-related weather events, from unprecedented heat in the Pacific Northwest to wildfires in Siberia, and many fires, floods and hurricanes in between.

Despite a brief moment when it seemed like pandemic lockdowns reduced greenhouse gas emissions, 2020 saw record emissions and tied for the hottest year ever. Emissions at the end of December 2020 were 2% higher than the same month in 2019, according to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021.

Carbon emissions rebound
Carbon emissions rebounded in 2020. Image: Statista/IEA

The bottom line: “The world remains woefully off track in meeting the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels and reaching net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions globally by 2050,” says the report.

These issues and more will be addressed at the Forum's virtual Sustainable Impact Development Summit 2021 on 20-23 September.

Have you read?

While six Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focus on the environment, climate change will hurt our ability to meet all 17 goals. Poor air quality and polluted water create health risks, with a disproportionate impact on people of color and poor countries. Droughts and rising sea levels harm our food supply, increasing food insecurity and hunger. Biodiversity loss not only harms economies and livelihoods, but also puts us at greater risk of another pandemic.

Weather damage grew more costly in the past decade
Extreme weather causes environmental, economic and societal harm. Image: Statista

The upside is we’re seeing action – and the appetite and financing for more.

“As of December 2020, over two thirds of the world’s GDP was being generated in places with actual or intended ‘net zero by 2050’ targets, covering over half the world’s population and emissions,” says the UN’s progress report. We’re also seeing business rally around environmental, social, governance (ESG) reporting standards, and invest in reaching net zero within their own companies, too.

Sustainable Development Goals to save the planet

All 17 SDGs touch in some way on environmental health and the impacts of climate change. However, when it comes to saving the planet, we’re specifically talking about these six:

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, including ensuring access to safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation, improving water quality and water-use efficiency and protecting and restoring water- ecosystems.

SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, including ensuring access to affordable, reliable and modern energy and increasing the use of renewable energy.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, which covers access to adequate, safe, affordable and sustainable housing, transportation and public green spaces; inclusive and sustainable urbanization; protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage; reducing deaths and economic losses due to natural disasters; and reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities.

SDG 13: Climate Action, a call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, strengthen resilience to climate change and natural disasters and support the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

SDG 14: Life Below Water, which targets marine pollution, ocean acidification and overfishing, calls for more sustainable management, protection and conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems.

SDG 15: Life on Land, including protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests and halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss.

How much progress has been made?

When it comes to the environment-focused goals, the UN's latest report on the SDGs reveals we've made a little progress – but an alarming amount of work still needs to be done.

Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and “need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels, and reach net-zero emissions by 2050”, says the report.

Carbon emissions in 2020 vs 2019
Carbon emissions increased in 2020 compared to 2019. Image: UN

In the ocean, while marine protected areas have “increased significantly”, increases have “plateaued”, while ocean “dead zones – areas of water that lack sufficient oxygen to support marine life – increased from around 400 in 2008 to approximately 700 in 2019”.

Sustainable Development Goal 14
How much progress has been made on SDG 14? Image: UN

On land, deforestation, land degradation, development and wildlife trafficking (among other issues) threaten 28% of species with extinction and, as in the ocean, efforts to protect biodiversity areas have stalled. Between 2000 to 2020, we’ve lost almost 100 million hectares of forest land.

Sustainable Development Goal 15
How much progress have we made on SDG 15? Image: UN

What about the impact on people’s lives? More people have access to safe drinking water (74.3% in 2020 from 70.2% in 2015), sanitation (54% in 2020 from 47.1% in 2015) and clean cooking fuels (66% in 2019 from 57% in 2010). However, last year, 2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water and 3.6 billion safely managed sanitation – essentials for hygiene during a pandemic.

We are seeing greater investment in mitigation efforts – development of renewable energy, provision of climate finance, protection of land and marine ecosystems – but more funding is needed. Luckily, we’re seeing the appetite among governments, businesses and other stakeholders to do what it takes to stop the destruction of the planet – and a recognition that urgent action is needed now.

What are the World Economic Forum and its partners doing to create a sustainable planet?

The Climate Action Platform is helping businesses, governments and NGOs accelerate and scale the ambition and partnerships needed to address climate change. Thirty-two projects cover a range of industries and goals, including:

This is just a small sample of World Economic Forum programmes focused on climate action – learn more.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

What can I do to save the planet?

  • Whenever possible, take action to minimize my impact on the environment: install water-saving devices or source renewable energy in my home or business; walk, cycle or take public transportation; recycle or re-sell unwanted items, and consider purchasing second-hand instead of new; choose locally or responsibly sourced food, especially fish.
  • Properly recycle or dispose of waste, especially hazardous chemicals or packaging.
  • Support businesses committed to the transparency of their product lifecycles.
  • Encourage my company to adopt environmental stewardship practices, both at the company level and by participating in applicable partnerships or coalitions.
  • Encourage my national and local officials to prioritize reducing emissions and cleaning up the land, sea and air.
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Forum InstitutionalNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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