The UN’s ‘first-ever’ sustainability week: What (if anything) was announced?

None of the SDGs are on course to be achieved by 2030.

At the start of the month, UNGA President Dennis Francis announced the Assembly’s plan to hold a dedicated week focused on sustainability from 15 April to 19 April, in a bid to galvanise global momentum and accelerate progress towards UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which encompasses the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Last year, the UN revealed that none of the SDGs are on course to be achieved by 2030, posing a threat to the world’s decade-long efforts on goals.

The UNGA sustainability week, receiving participation from heads of states and governments, sector-specific ministers and key UN officials, focused on mobilising much-needed efforts towards achieving the world’s sustainability goals. Here, we summarise key highlights from the week.

Day one: Reform of global financial architecture

On 16 April, the UN’s Secretary General António Guterres kicked off the ‘sustainability week’ calling for an urgent reform of the global financial system, while outlining the crippling impact of debt on developing countries.

Guterres said: “No example of the international financial architecture’s failure is more glaring than its handling of debt. The last four years have been nothing short of a debt disaster.”

According to UN figures, global public debt reached $313trn last year, with the situation particularly alarming in developing economies.

Extremely high borrowing costs left countries with about 3.3 billion people in total – around 40% of the global population – spending more on interest payments than on health or education initiatives.

At the same time, more than 100 prominent celebrities published an open letter to G20 leaders calling for a reform of the global financial system that puts an end to crippling debt for low-income countries while focusing on the “polluters pay” principle.

Francis echoed the calls, highlighting the impact of such disparities on youth, women, persons with disabilities and those living in rural areas.

He said: “If nothing is done to correct this situation, they will literally be left behind, denied from enjoying the fruits of development and ignored.”

The discussion encompassed the need for the implementation of the SDG Stimulus programme, which aims to secure $500bn annually in extra financing from the world’s most developed nations.

Rich nations have previously been slammed for not delivering on their pledge to provide $100bn a year to developing nations. This pledge was first announced in 2009 and formally ratified in 2015. However, the full $100bn per year has not yet been delivered in any given year.

Day two: Sustainability in global tourism

The discussions on the second day of the flagship week focused on the need to promote sustainable and resilient tourism practices while ensuring that local economies benefit from them.

Tourism currently accounts for approximately 8% of global carbon emissions. Projections suggest that by 2025, tourism emissions could escalate to 6.5 billion metric tons, marking a 44% surge from 2013 levels and representing roughly 13% of current global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Francis said: “Despite the spectacular benefits reaped across its vast supply chains – tourism is also intrinsically susceptible to a host of disruptive forces – such as climate change, pandemics, acts of terrorism and domestic political instability.”

He urged the Assembly to focus on developing a sustainable tourism sector that promotes locally made products and services in ways that directly benefit local communities, while building resilient infrastructure that can withstand climate disasters.

Additionally, he highlighted that the sector must prioritise expanding opportunities for jobs and economic growth, especially for women, youth, and indigenous and local communities.

Day three: Decarbonisation of global transport

Opening the meeting on sustainable transport on the third day, Francis began by urging countries to focus on providing equal access to sustainable transport for landlocked developing countries, small island developing states and least developed nations.

He said: “One billion people, roughly one-eighth of the planet, lack access to all-weather roads. Our foremost priority must be to ensure equal access to sustainable transport.”

According to the UN, the transport sector currently accounts for nearly a quarter of the global GHG emissions, with more than 95% of the sector’s energy coming from petroleum products.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Li Junhua said: “Increasing efficiency, reducing fossil fuel use and investing in public transport must be at the top of our transport actions.”

Research found that battery uptake among the global transport and power sectors could slash their collective annual emissions by 30% by 2030.

Turkmenistan Minister for Transport and Communications emphasised how establishing transport corridors with countries such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Uzbekistan can not only support international trade but promote economic development and growth in the region.

Day four: A call for massive investment in sustainable infrastructure

The fourth day of the week saw talks centred around building resilience and promoting sustainable development through infrastructure connectivity.

Francis said: “The small island developing states in particular, often confront more intense and frequent natural hazards, making their infrastructure susceptible to damage and destruction.”

He highlighted that in some instances, the annual cost of damage amounts to almost 10% of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP), necessitating a focus on resiliency.

While a lot of the focus was on building infrastructure that was resilient to environmental hazards, the necessity to retrofit the existing infrastructure was overlooked.

Research shows that around 80% of the currently existing buildings will continue to exist in 2050, underscoring the urgency to retrofit them for energy efficiency and sector decarbonisation.

Day five: The decade of sustainable energy

Bringing the week to a close, the final discourse was set around the need for collaboration between governments, the private sector and civil society to accelerate the global energy transition.

According to the UN, since 2015, the global population with access to electricity has increased from 87% to 91%, with developing countries experiencing a 9.6% annual growth in renewable energy installation.

Francis said: “The pace of energy transformations is still much too slow – and the benefits are not shared equitably.”

He stressed the need to triple the amount of global renewable energy produced and double the amount of annual energy saved.

At the World Leaders Summit at COP28 last year, more than 100 countries signed up to a commitment to triple global renewable capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030.

Francis concluded: “If we are to accomplish our goals and targets by 2030, we must make every effort to sustain this political momentum.”

All in all, the focused week delivered a series of strong rhetoric discussions; however, no initiatives were announced to actualise these discussions into actionable steps. Additionally, it’s not yet clear if the ‘focused week’ will take place next year or what will follow next.

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