10 September, 2021
Children in oversized school uniforms. The first golden leaves on the ground. The return of the rain.
September is well and truly upon us, and with it the annual session of the UN General Assembly, whose members will gather in New York next week. On the agenda? The biggest challenges facing humankind.
What with one thing and another, many of us might not have spared much thought for the UN Sustainable Development Goals over the past year. But these seventeen goals – which at their adoption in 2015 may have seemed a distant utopian vision – are now a stark reminder of how far we still have to go, and how little time we have to get there.
Covid-19 is, of course, partly to blame. With ten years to go until the 2030 deadline for many of the goals, 2020 was supposed to be a year of taking stock and taking action. But instead, the pandemic forced us backwards. Goal 1 is to end poverty, but over 100 million people were pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020. Goal 3 is to end gender equality, but 10 million girls will be at risk of child marriage over the next ten years as a direct result of the pandemic. And businesses’ plans to help deliver on the SDGs were shelved as they focussed on staying afloat.
Other factors, however, also play a role. With the world’s eyes on COP26, and the window for limiting heating to 1.5 degrees rapidly closing, ‘sustainability’ efforts and budgets are heavily focussed on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. This raises a host of questions. Are we right to focus on emissions in the face of an impending climate emergency that will set us back on almost every one of the SDGs? Or is now, when the status quo is already threatened by the climate emergency, a timely moment to consider the other issues humankind needs to address?
There are no easy answers. But we can start by telling the truth: that if we don’t begin taking the SDGs much more seriously, they are likely to remain a distant dream.
By Sarah Howden