Since 1990, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. But this progress is under threat: inequality has deepened and climate change and biodiversity loss are approaching tipping points. However, science has the power to help mitigate the trade-offs that come with achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are all interconnected, and put us back on track to creating a better world for all by 2030, according to the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report #GSDR.
This report is the first quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report to be written by an independent group of scientists appointed by the United Nations Secretary General as mandated by United Nations Member States. It has been written to inform actions to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Entitled “The Future is now: Science for achieving the SDGs”, the report stresses that governments, business, communities and civil society need to transform a number of key areas of human activities: food, energy, consumption and cities. Increased investment in science for sustainability and in natural and social science institutions based in developing countries are needed.
The report’s Call to Action identifies 20 points where interventions can create transformative and accelerated progress towards multiple goals and targets in the coming decade. These targeted actions are based on the recent scientific literature analysing the deeper systemic interconnections that identify synergies and trade-offs between individual goals and targets.
The report advocates for universal access to quality basic services—healthcare, education, water and sanitation infrastructure, housing and social protection—as a prerequisite to elimination of poverty and advances in human well-being, with special attention given to persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. The report calls for renewed attention to ending legal and social discrimination, and for strengthened unions, nongovernmental organizations, women’s groups and other community organizations, finding them all to be important partners in efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda. The authors identify the food and energy systems as particularly important arenas for change since these systems, as they currently function, are bringing the world toward environmental tipping points, but they are also critical nexus areas for human health and well-being.
The food system must undergo widespread changes to the infrastructure, cultural and societal norms, and policies that are supporting the current, unsustainable, status quo. At present, approximately 2 billion people suffer from food insecurity and 820 million people are undernourished. At the same time, overweight rates are growing in almost all regions of the world, with global numbers reaching 2 billion overweight adults and 40 million children under the age of five.
For developing countries, stronger social protection floors are needed to ensure food security and nutrition. Countries must reduce the environmental impact of their food production systems, considering the entire value chain, by reducing food waste and reducing reliance on animal-based protein sources. Developing and developed countries both need to increase attention to malnutrition in all its forms—including the increasingly high numbers of persons who are overweight.
The energy system also must transform to close the energy access gap. Close to 1 billion people are without access to electricity, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and more than 3 billion people rely on polluting solid fuels for cooking, causing an estimated 3.8
million premature deaths each year. These gaps must be addressed, while at the same time
increasing energy efficiency and phasing out fossil-based power generation without carbon capture and storage , so that the world economy is decarbonized, in line with the aspirations of the Paris agreement.
The amount of modern renewable energy in the total global energy supply has increased by an average of 5.4 percent annually over the past decade. Meanwhile, since 2009 the price of renewable electricity dropped by 77 percent for solar photovoltaics and 38 percent for onshore wind—and for five years in a row, global investments in clean energy have exceeded US$ 300 billion annually.
However, additional growth has been stymied by direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels that continue to distract from their true economic, health and environmental costs. With two-thirds of the global population projected to live in cities by 2050, the report finds that achieving the 2030 Agenda will require more compact and efficient cities that are better served by quality public transport and other infrastructure, social services and an economy that provides decent and sustainable livelihoods including those enabled by technology and nature-based industries. Partnerships and networks among peer cities can help municipal leaders build on good practices and a store of expertise, as can investing in building a “science of cities.”
The scientists emphasized that the global environmental commons—such as the atmosphere, rainforests and oceans—must be safeguarded as crucial sources of ecosystem services and natural resources. Governments, local communities, the private sector and international actors must work together to conserve, restore and sustainably use natural resources. Accurately assessing environmental assets is a critical first step, and their value should be reflected through pricing, transfers, regulation and other economic instruments.
Decisions based on science
Science must play a major role in advancing sustainable development. Universities, policymakers and research funders must increase support to research guided by the 2030 Agenda. Simultaneously, researchers in sustainability science and other disciplines, must work together to solve development problems and strengthen the science-policy-society interface, providing society and policy-makers information they can use to solve development problems.
The report makes the case for shifting current research priorities and supporting innovative approaches to sustainability science, emphasizing cross-disciplinary partnerships, and committing support and resources to scientific institutions, particularly in the global South. Development aid budgets should prioritize boosting scientific capacity and access in the global South. UN Member States, research consortia and libraries should work together to improve cross-border and inter-disciplinary collaborations in science for the SDGs.
The full report, “The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development,” can be found here: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/gsdr2019
A complete list of the scientists is available here: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/gsdr2019