United Nations New York

With only 11 years left to deliver the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda, far more needs to be done and local governments and citizens must become more involved in sustainable development, high-profile speakers told the latest High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) meeting. The conference was also warned the world can no longer afford to regard the Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the annual conference, held in New York last week, that the world is “not yet on track and must step it up” if it wants to achieve the Agenda’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDG). He cited extreme poverty, inequality, global unemployment, gender inequality and climate change as among the obstacles to success.

“The evidence is clear,” said Guterres. “Development is not sustainable if it is not fair and inclusive – and rising inequality hinders long-term growth.”

The world’s people are demanding “transformative change that is fair and sustainable” and government leaders should use an upcoming slate of key UN meetings in September to “kick-start a decade of delivery and action for people and planet,” he said.

The HLPF meets annually to review progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda’s goals.

General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa, opening the Ministerial Segment of the conference, said the clock is ticking to achieve the goals: “We have eleven years to deliver”.

Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson told the conference “we can no longer afford to regard the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary”, citing a report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, published last May. That report described a massive loss of biodiversity over the past 50 years and the potential extinction of one million species.

Inga Rhonda King, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and María Fernanda Espinosa, General Assembly President, at the podium of the opening of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development last week. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Speaking in her role as the Chair of the Elders – a group of independent global leaders that works for human rights and a sustainable future – Robinson said the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are among the “most important diplomatic achievements of this century”. 

If implemented in full, they are “a pathway to a world where poverty, inequality and conflict will not blight the life chances for millions of people currently denied the opportunity to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms”.

Reducing inequality

She stressed that the full implementation of both goals has become imperative “to secure a liveable world for our children and grandchildren”. 

The Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Hoesung Lee, told the conference “climate action and sustainable development are inseparable”. 

He said that while climate actions produce “new opportunities for the economy, environment and society”, they are contingent upon “international cooperation, with social justice and equity being core aspects of climate-resilient development pathways”. 

Guterres said he is convinced scaling up SDG investments is “our best tool of prevention”. 

“Global climate action must be advanced in a manner that reduces inequality,” including by shifting to a greener economy, he said. 

No one must be left behind. Achieving the SDGs “is inherently linked to human rights, diplomacy and prevention”.

Inga Rhonda King, President of the Economic and Social Council agreed the situation was urgent. She said voluntary national reviews around the 17 SDGs had been shared by 142 countries but “we need to do more, to do it faster and be more transformative”.

Localisation of the goals was a major focus for the conference, with attendees calling on the UN to accelerate the process.

Localisation means city administrations must seek the views of those most affected by policy decisions, for example, by creating “citizens’ assemblies” – a call made by the Extinction Rebellion movement that has wider applicability than just climate change but can be used to address social and economic issues.

Globally, local and regional governments, on average, account for 37 per cent of total public investment, giving them huge potential for action.

Mexican city Guadalajara was cited as an example of how to consolidate the governance roadmap for citizens to let them have an influence on municipal development plans and to evaluate public policies and local management.

The Global Taskforce of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) called upon state governments to involve local governments at all stages of the decision-making process. Over 120 local and regional government representatives at the conference agreed that the vast majority of national governments needed to do more to integrate local opinions, with only 49 countries out of 143 having so far consulted local and regional governments on how to implement the 2030 Agenda.

Local government initiatives

Some progress has been made. Over 9,000 cities from 129 countries have committed to measurable action through the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. They have created policies to foster inclusive local planning and the social integration of marginalised neighbourhoods.

Some are working to develop more accountable and transparent institutions through participatory budgeting or Open Government policies, to improve trust in public administration.

Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of UCLG, believes the goal of local governments is to foster happiness, because “many [people] depend on basic services provided by local governments [which also] define the scope of the major agendas such as Agenda 2030 and its sustainable development objectives, thus linking the local with the global”.

A growing number of local or regional governments are developing their own sustainable development reporting systems to assess their progress in achieving the SDGs, such as the autonomous Basque Country in Northern Spain, the Mexican state of Oaxaca, France’s Gironde department, and the cities of Bak?rköy, Bristol, Buenos Aires and Santana de Parnaíba. European countries, followed by those in Africa and Latin America, have been the most inclusive in involving local administrations in national SDG policy creation.

In Sweden, an open database for local and regional authorities has been developed, linking existing data to the SDGs to let them see how they are ranked. 

For example, the proportion of employees that are on long-term sick leave is linked to the goal for ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all people at all ages. Also, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions within a municipality’s boundary is linked to the goal for combating climate change, while 81 municipalities and 15 regions are participating in Global Sweden, a three-year awareness raising project for politicians and civil servants. 

In the Asia-Pacific, there has been a slight increase in involvement in regional decision-making, such as the ASEAN Mayors Forum and UNESCAP Forums. However, there isn’t sufficient involvement of local and regional governments and local people in decision-making to accelerate the pace of implementation, mainly due to a lack of capacity, knowledge and funding across different levels of government.

The conference agreed that the solution for embedding the SDGs locally and tackling climate change lies in local and regional governments having more access to responsible borrowing such as through climate or green funds, and better coordination across departments, making public financing more productive, effective and inclusive.

David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities, and in October is teaching an online Post-Graduate Certificate in ‘One Planet’ Governance.

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