The Audacity of Hope for People and Planet: 2023 New York SDG Summit Outcome and Beyond: Part – II
On September 19, 2023, the United Nations SDG Summit came to a close. In this context, Pr. Dr. Bharat H. Desai reflects on its outcome. What challenges were identified? What will be needed to overcome these obstacles?
This article was originally written for the Environmental Policy and Law blog. It is also a sequel to the author’s Green Diplomacy article (Part – I) of September 05, 2023 The Audacity of Hope for People and Planet: Rescue Plan for 2030 Sustainable Development Goals — Green Diplomacy.
On October 10, 2023, the United Nations Secretary-General (UN SG) Antonio Guterres addressed the Fifth Committee (Admin and Budget) of the General Assembly (GA). “Inequalities are growing wider and the prospects of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals are growing more distant. And climate disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, and more costly. One in three countries is at high risk of a fiscal crisis, and almost half of those in extreme poverty live in countries with severe fiscal problems. The role of the United Nations has never been more vital – and we are stepping up our efforts”, the UNSG said.
As underscored in part – I of this author’s GREEN DIPLOMACY article (September 05, 2023) as well as three of his three recent talks: (i) Prof. Rahmatullah Khan Memorial Lecture, November 02, 2023; (ii) Prof. R. P. Anand Memorial Lecture; September 14, 2023; and (iii) Indian Society of International Law, Valedictory Address at International Conference, March 04, 2023, the “world we live in” presents a serious challenge mostly comprising human induced problems (along with nature driven processes). The recent (UN News, Oct 9, 2023) strikes against civilians in and around Gaza have vindicated the grave concerns that with more than 2 billion people (out of the total 8 billion) living in conflict zones, the prospects for realizing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) practically seem to be bleak. This author’s concern for the “world we live in” also found an explicit echo in the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration (September 9-10, 2023) as it noted with “deep concern immense human suffering and the adverse impact of wars and conflicts around the world” (para 7) as well as “adverse impact that conflicts have on the security of civilians thereby exacerbating existing socio-economic fragilities and vulnerabilities and hindering an effective humanitarian response” (para 12). The “scourge of war” (Preamble to the UN Charter) full 78 years after the advent of the United Nations, presents an ideational challenge for the concrete plan flagged by the Indian Prime Minister for “dialogue and diplomacy” as well as the fact that “today’s era must not be of war” (para 14, G20 New Delhi Declaration, September 8-9, 2023).
1/ The UNGA as a Conductor of a Grand Orchestra
Along with its six committees, the UNGA has played a pivotal role in norm-setting, organizing international law-making processes and institution building on a variety of global problematique. It has resorted to a remarkable engineering skill to engage a host of actors in contentious issues from the past (colonialism, racial discrimination, slavery, apartheid), existing global problems (climate change, SDGs, conflicts, sexual and gender-based violence against women) and future challenges (artificial intelligence, harmony with nature, planetary crisis, future generations). Notwithstanding the legal quibbling arising from ostensible so-called limits placed by Article 11 of the UN Charter on the UNGA’s principal instrumentality of resolutions as “recommendations” has never per se come in the way of their legitimacy or making most of these resolutions work (taken seriously by the UN member states).
As a corollary to the UNGA’s consistent engagements in addressing some of the global challenges as the “conductor of a grand orchestra” [Bharat H. Desai (2004). Institutionalizing International Environmental Law, Chapter 5, 144. New York: Transnational], the President of the UNGA, Csaba Kőrösi, invited (program; letter of July 17, 2023) the Heads of State and Government (HoS&G) for the 2023 High-level political forum on sustainable development under the auspices of the UNGA’s 2023 SDG Summit (September 18-19, 2023). It became significant mid-point (2015-2030) event. The 2023 SDG special edition report provides graphic account of the utopian goals amidst the troubled “world we live in”. They were adopted vide UNGA resolution 70/1 of September 25, 2015 with a mission for Transforming Our World. The 2023 SDG Summit could be considered as a last-ditch effort to address the “impact of multiple and interlocking crises facing the world”. The 2023 SDG Summit coincided with the commencement of the UNGA 78th session (2023-2024). It took place exactly one year ahead of the forthcoming Summit of the Future (September 22-23, 2024) that will provide yet another chance in quick succession for further review and push for realization of the SDGs in the remaining seven years (2023-2030) of the current cycle (2015-2030).
2/ The New York SDG Summit Outcome
The 2023 SDG Summit can be construed as a ‘stitch in time to save the nine’ for the humankind in the wake of the planetary level crisis. It sought to respond to the consequences of multiple and interlocking “world problematique” (as described by the Club of Rome’s 1972 report: The Limits to Growth) faced by the humankind in grimmer conditions. What went wrong? The deliberations and the resultant outcome document – Political Declaration – may yield high-level political guidance on transformative and accelerated actions to usher in a new phase for attaining 2030 SDGs in the remaining seven years (2015-2030). The 2023 SDG Summit was intended “to provide a renewed impetus and accelerated action for reaching the SDGs” and was “expected to reignite a sense of hope, optimism, and enthusiasm for the 2030 Agenda.” However, a “great finance divide” threatens the SDG targets since the ability of a large number of poorer countries, reeling under mountains of debt, has been sharply curtailed for investment in recovery, climate action, and sustainable development. As a consequence, the Revised Zero Draft of the Political Declaration (June 08, 2023), prepared for adoption at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), under the auspices of the General Assembly mandated 2023 SDG Summit, underscored the ominous ground reality that: “The achievement of the SDGs is in peril. At the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda, we are alarmed that only 12 per cent of the SDGs are on track and 30 per cent remain unchanged or below the 2015 baseline. The progress on most of the SDGs is either moving much too slowly or has regressed”.
Interestingly, the final text of the Political Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 29, 2023 (as an outcome of the 2023 SDG Summit), chose to eschew the uncomfortable reality of the “world we live in” contained in the chilling figures (given in the Revised Zero Draft) that “12 per cent of the SDGs are on track and 30 per cent remain unchanged”. As already mentioned, the mounting debt burden due to high borrowing costs is one of the principal factors that cripples fragile economies of most the developing countries. It reflects the deep rooted inequitable international financial and monetary system. In the end, the Political Declaration, adopted at the 2023 SDG Summit, under the auspices of the UNGA’s HLPF, vowed that: “We will act with urgency to realize its vision as a plan of action for people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership, leaving no one behind. We will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first”. As a result, the Political Declaration chose to give a priority to implementation of the 2030 Agenda and committed to upholding all the principles contained therein. Some aspects of the Political Declaration merit closer scrutiny:
(i) Shared Commitment
It has been emphasized that “eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge” (para 3). It is considered an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. The Declaration has reaffirmed that the 2030 Agenda is universal in nature and comprises the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental (see Figure: Three Dimensions of Sustainable Development Agenda 2030).
Figure: Three Dimensions of Sustainable Development Agenda 2030
The empowerment of women, gender equality and human rights for all are crucial pillars of the SDGs. Therefore, the Declaration emphasized: “We reaffirm that the 2030 Agenda is universal in nature and that its Goals and targets are comprehensive, far-reaching, people-centered, indivisible and interlinked, balancing the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental, in an integrated manner. They seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls” (para 4).
It is reaffirmed that the 2030 Agenda was guided by the UN Charter including “respect for international law” since it is “grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights treaties, the Millennium Declaration and the 2005 World Summit Outcome. It is informed by other instruments such as the Declaration on the Right to Development” (para 5). Moreover, climate change has been regarded as one of the “triple planetary crisis” of our times. As greenhouse gases (GHG) continue to rise globally, and with all countries, the special vulnerability of the developing countries has been addressed. It emphasized that climate change mitigation and adaptation are an immediate priority. Increased inequality due to poverty, hunger and malnutrition have become more prevalent, humanitarian costs are rising (339 million need assistance), and the impacts of climate change, etc. weaken international solidarity and the trust deficit mars collective efforts to overcome these crises. Cumulatively, it appeared clear that an effective and global cooperation is a sine qua non at all levels to realize the 2030 SDGs. It was, in turn, reflected in a political vow that we “will promote a systemic shift towards a more inclusive, just, peaceful, resilient and sustainable world for people and planet, for present and future generations”.
The Declaration has recognized that many countries are facing challenges in pursuing sustainable development goals. They comprise mostly developing countries including African countries, landlocked countries, island countries and least developed countries that are facing special challenges. Most of these countries are mostly middle-income countries and countries in conflict and post-conflict situations. The gender agenda emerging at the top of the list, women’s empowerment, the elimination of violence against women and girls would call for policy, legal and institutional responses at global and domestic levels. Hence, the Declaration underscored: “We commit to enhancing global, regional, national and local partnerships for sustainable development, engaging all relevant stakeholders, including civil society, private sector, academia and youth, recognizing the important contribution they can make toward achieving the 2030 Agenda, and the localization of the SDGs. We also reaffirm the importance of the regional dimension of sustainable development in addressing regional challenges and scaling up action among countries.”
Some other strands in the global concerns and discourse include discrimination based on race, hate speech, stigmatization, xenophobia and related intolerance etc. These can be addressed only through cooperation, partnership, inclusion and respect for diversity. There are cross-cutting actions comprising quality education, universal health and related issues like food etc. that would provide long-term cohesion, sustenance and peaceful future. As a corollary to the urgent steps required for planetary level crisis, the SDG Summit sought to address several other pillars to conserve and sustainably use oceans and seas, freshwater resources, as well as forests, mountains and drylands and protect biodiversity, ecosystems and wildlife. It would need concerted commitments through global, regional, national and legal partnerships for sustainable development to achieve the 203o Agenda.
(ii) Identification of Gaps and Challenges
The challenges and gaps identified and reflected in the 2023 SDG Summit and its outcome instrumentality of Political Declaration, are mostly based on the world before and after COVID-19. Climate change, poverty, forced displacement, economic issues like cost-of-living, conflicts, gender inequality, the problems relating to migration, increased SDG financing gap, problems of landlocked countries, etc. have been identified as the most important challenges in the implementation of the 2030 SDGs that especially affect developing and least developed countries. Thus, they welcomed the UN Development system to implement reforms championed by the UNSG and endorsed by the UNGA to support the countries in realizing the 2030 Agenda. The importance of sustainable funding has given priority to the UN development system and its programmatic activities. Moreover, voluntary national reviews have been regarded as suitable mechanisms to monitor progress and integrate the SDGs into national policies and plans.
(iii) The Road Ahead
The States have renewed their commitment for taking urgent action at all levels to achieve the goals that would be fundamental and transformative for the planetary future. The SDG Summit has identified States that are doing well and aims to support those who are left behind. The needs of “all children, youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples, refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants have been duly reflected in the Agenda. In fact, the need for a concrete global partnership has emerged as one of the important tools to achieve the SDG targets by 2030. In this wake, the Political Declaration has zeroed in on prioritization of digitalization in the developing countries as: “the digital economy, including by enhancing their digital infrastructure connectivity, building their capacities and access to technological innovations through stronger partnerships and improving digital literacy…We reaffirm that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. We look forward to the elaboration of a Global Digital Compact to bridge the digital divides and to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals” [para 38 (c)].
There have been serious concerns for global water scarcity and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all as well as identifying gaps for addressing issues like global pandemics and the global health coverage so that no one is left behind. Similarly, implementation of the ‘New Urban Agenda’, global sustainable consumption patterns and zero-waste initiatives would matter most in the saga of realization of 2030 SDGs. With a focus on renewable energy, full implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030) has been flagged as one of the important targets. However, it did not call for an international legally binding treaty on disaster management and risk reduction.
Another urgent issue has been ‘climate action’ for the implementation of the 1992 UNFCCC and the 2015 Paris Agreement for climate mitigation, adaptation and the means of implementation especially finance for the developing countries. The Declaration observes that: “We urge the implementation of the decisions adopted at COP 27 held in Sharm El-Sheikh. We will take concrete steps toward the operationalization of the new funding arrangements for responding to loss and damage by COP 28. We commit to continuing our work to accelerate our action to address climate change. In this regard, we also look forward to the first global stock take of the Paris Agreement to take place at COP 28” [para 38 (l)].
Implementation of all the provisions of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has also been emphasized in three of its objectives: “We will take urgent action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 to put nature on a path to recovery for the benefit of people and planet by conserving and sustainably using biodiversity and by ensuring the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the utilization of genetic resources, while providing the sufficient means of implementation to support developing countries” [para 38 (m)].
The participating States in the SDG Summit welcomed the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund. It also committed to take urgent efforts to implement the strategic objectives of the 1994 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) because “combating desertification, land degradation, drought and floods, as well as sand and dust storms, and achieving land degradation neutrality are essential and have emerged as a pathway to accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs.” The sustainable use and conservation of oceans and their resources under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was affirmed by the States and supported the global effects of marine pollution, especially marine plastic pollution. This futuristic thrust came to be articulated thus: “as recalled in paragraph 158 of The Future We Want, we look forward to the third UN Ocean Conference, to be held in 2025, to scale-up ocean action and accelerate implementation”; “(p) We will support the global efforts to address plastic pollution, and the work of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment by 2024” [para 38 (o) and (p)].
The Declaration has reiterated “the need to accelerate the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms, as mutually agreed”. Similarly, the need for funding SDGs related research and innovation and address the emerging challenges of global regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) was emphasized. It pledged to act on international, national, and local data systems efforts that should be based on high quality, timely, relevant, disaggregated and reliable data on SDG. The outcome also sought full implementation of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and to take further actions to scale up financing for sustainable development and provide the means of implementation to the developing countries.
It appears good omen that through the SDG Summit Declaration, the UN member states renewed their commitments to multilateralism to find ways of working together and ensure that multilateral institutions deliver results. Similarly, they swore by peaceful settlement of disputes, respect for international law and the principles and purposes of the UN Charter including the right to self-determination, territorial integrity and political independence of the States. As an icing on the cake, the SDG Summit Declaration finally vowed and as the UNSG has emphasized (Sept. 18, 2023) that: “We pledge to act now, for present and future generations, turning our world towards a sustainable and resilient path by 2030, and leaving no one behind” (para 43). This final sentence crystallizes the essence of what it will take for the UN member states in the remaining seven years of the current SDG cycle (2015-2030) to pursue. In fact, walking-the-talk would hold the key to the rescue plan for 2030 SDGs.
Conclusion: Audacity of Hope Continues
In the midst of a “planetary level crisis” [see Bharat H. Desai, SIS Blog Special (March 29, 2023) – I and II and Green Diplomacy (Feb. 14, 2023)] and the “world we live in”, the audacity of hope has become a prerequisite. One can only hope that the resolve of the 2023 New York SDG Summit (September 18-19, 2023) materializes so as to address the alarm button pushed by the UNSG at the Stockholm+50 Conference (June 02, 2022). It will need to be ensured that the SDGs do not remain “hot air” and we decisively “end our senseless and suicidal war against nature”.
The 2023 SDG Summit outcome would also impinge upon the prospects for the 2024 New York Summit of the Future to be held during September 22-23, 2024. Hopefully, notwithstanding the graphic reality and challenges of the world we live in, the key mantra of the UN member states will need to resolutely adhere to the solemn declaration of the SDG Summit’s outcome document of Political Declaration in “leaving no one behind” (para 43). This solemn declaration of the Political Declaration provides a beacon of hope for bold, ambitious, accelerated and transformative actions for a sustainable future for people and planet. Now it indeed appears audacious (and hope for a miracle) to expect realization of all the 2030 SDGs in the coming seven years (2023-2030). If the UN member states can walk-the-talk, it would pave the way for some concrete action plan for saving the planet Earth at the 2024 Summit of the Future and beyond.
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 Bharat H. Desai (2022), “Use of Weapons of War and the Role of Humanitarians: A Challenge for International Law”, School of International Studies Blog, August 23, 2022
 For a detailed scholarly analysis of AI and its regulatory challenge, see Bharat H. Desai (2023), “Taming the Beast: On the Global Regulation of Artificial Intelligence for a Safe Future”, School of International Studies Blog, July 24, 2023
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 Bharat H. Desai (2023), “The Sleepwalking into a Planetary Crisis: Invoking International Law – I” (March 29, 2023); Bharat H. Desai (2023), “The Sleepwalking into a Planetary Crisis: Invoking International Law – II” (March 29, 2023)
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