Where are we on the SDGs?

Recently, I attended the opening of a European conference with civil society on how best to contribute to more progress towards the Global Goals for Sustainability, the SDGs. The starting point was discouraging, but I was greatly encouraged by the commitment and hope of my fellow debater, a young woman from Slovenia who is one of the UN’s powerful youth ambassadors.

We agreed that without a strong civil society, nothing will succeed. If indeed, we hope to slow down global warming and avert the resulting many new and even greater disasters, we must rely on civil society to constantly highlight the urgency.

Some believe that setbacks make the SDGs irrelevant, and others want to talk only about climate. But regardless of the fact that we are  – much too – far from realizing the 2030 goals, they constitute a revolutionary new narrative that must be kept alive – moreover, a narrative that only became so powerful because global civil society participated more than ever before in the process of formulating them at the UN.

The global goals are a head-on confrontation with the neo liberal misconception that resources are unlimited, that the old growth model can just continue forever and that distribution doesn’t matter, because when the rich get richer, it will inevitably trickle down to the poor.

The SDGs state that the world’s resources are limited and that growth as we know it cannot continue. We must move away from fossil fuels, the economy must become circular, forests must be preserved and expanded, and nature must be protected much better in order to save vital biodiversity.

Right now the SDGs of poverty and inequality are headed in the wrong direction

Poverty can only be eradicated while at the same time purposefully fighting the extreme and growing inequality in the world.

All the SDGs are each other’s prerequisite. Progress in one means progress on all of them. But obviously, stronger climate action is a necessary prerequisite for popular understanding and financial resources to generate future progress on the other SDGs.

If climate change continues, as it has so far, it will trigger devastation, mass migration and conflicts on a scale beyond all else. Ultimately, it is about whether we have a globe to save.

Political agency remains weak if voters do not understand the urgency and self-interest. Civil society remains the politicians’ inevitable partner in disseminating knowledge and understanding that sustainable societies constitute an inevitable revolution that comes at a cost and is incredibly urgent.

But if we continue as before, the cost will be much higher for our children and grandchildren. Therefore, we must mobilize an unprecedented will to change, in record time, our patterns of consumption and production.

And are we to maintain social stability as we must, it is adamant that we – far more purposefully than ever before – exempt economically weak groups from footing the bill. They have not contributed anyway nearly as much to the problem as the wealthy.

A year of encouragement

2015 was an encouraging year due to the fact that no UN member state actively argued against the adoption of the SDGs, and that in Paris, we were able to enter into the most far-reaching and binding climate agreement to date. Europe was at the forefront with high ambitions, and the negotiating process was headed expertly by the French presidency.

Even more crucial, however, was that the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the US, actually cooperated beautifully in Paris to convince and nudge all doubters and naysayers into agreement. It created hope.

Six months later, Europe’s attention was diverted by the Brexit vote and the year-long negotiations on Britain’s exit from the EU.

One year on, the United States disastrously elected Donald Trump, a ferocious climate denier, for president. He withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement while initiating a systematically escalated confrontation with China (as well as made the Middle East more insecure by terminating the Iran nuclear deal).

The Covid pandemic meant an even more selfish and introverted West. Promises to help the poor global south to adapt to climate change were not kept, and vaccines were not delivered on the necessary massive scale.

On top of that came Russia’s horrific war of aggression against Ukraine, which not only destroys people’s lives in one of Europe’s most populous countries, it also carries the risk of escalating into nuclear war.

The war affects the global economy with inflation that has knocked many hundreds of millions into more extreme poverty and hunger. The prices of food, fertiliser and energy have risen the most by far.

Ultimately, it is about whether we have a globe to save 

Moreover, the alarming increase in global inequality has continued at an even faster pace during the crises. The huge corporations in IT, e-commerce, energy, food and armaments pocket most of the growth in the global economy, and ownership of these giants is mostly concentrated in the hands of a few multi-dollar billionaires.

In short: Right now it is clearly going the wrong way in relation to the SDGs of poverty and inequality.

We have not progressed nearly enough with the climate goal either, but Russia’s war of aggression and the resulting energy crisis might just accelerate the pace of sustainability. Because climate’s urgent needs has now become urgent security policy as well.

We must create renewable and CO2-free energy supply at record speed. This will – permanently and violently – erode the profits of Putin and the despots in the Gulf states, who sit on the largest reserves of fossil fuels.

Again, Europe was the fastest react – first with ‘Fit for 55’ a few years ago, which sets the course to a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the EU in 2030, and further with bold plans from the Commission to transition away from Russian oil and gas after the invasion of Ukraine.

But Biden’s so-called ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ will accelerate America’s energy transition (and constitutes major competitive challenges for Europe).

Crucially, the international business community is seizing the opportunities, in the realisation that long-term earnings require sustainable solutions.

In a conversation I attended last autumn, Al Gore stated that history shows that political responses to crises often drag on, but that once the political decisions are made, the technological responses, on the other hand, are developed at surprising pace.

This is where hope is kindled for serious climate action.

During the past two and a half years, as chairman of Energinet, Denmark, I have experienced a virtual explosion in demand for green power, because the direct electrification via electric cars and heat pumps etc. is now being accompanied by large and hugely energy-demanding projects, which must transform cheap green electricity into hydrogen as a raw material in green fuels for heavy vehicles, ships and aircraft.

Therefore, the development of energy islands and giant offshore wind turbines must be carried out as quickly as possible. Furthermore, CO2-free biogas has become good business, and project ideas for storing CO2 in caves underground and below sea level are teeming.

This is a translation from Danish. My original op-ed was published at Altinget on the 1st of January, 2023.

You can find more articles by me in English here