Exclusively written for the Sting by Mr Ulf Björnholm, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Liaison Office to the EU institutions.
2015 marked a turning point for global cooperation on sustainable development, with world leaders agreeing on a new UN Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. These agreements represent a major shift in mindset, moving away from an inadequate “economic-growth-at-any-cost” approach towards a more inspirational agenda that puts human wellbeing and long term prosperity at center stage. They also bring together governments, civil society, the business community, academia and the public at large in a way that has never been seen before, thereby ensuring the broadest possible commitment and ownership to real transformation.
This new vision for humanity is in stark contrast to the daily news feed, where you easily get the impression that everything is moving in the wrong direction, with people getting poorer, air and water resources more polluted, and societies more unsafe and unstable. The question is: Will another UN plan really make a difference?
Yes, it will. While we may still have a long way to reach global sustainability, many of the world’s trends are positive. In fact, 2015 was from many perspectives the best year ever for humanity. On average, we live longer, we are better nourished and more educated than ever before. Nine out of ten children today go to school – an all-time high. Since 2000, extreme poverty has been halved globally, and millions of more children live to see their 5th birthday today than just 15 years ago. And for the vast majority of people, the statistical risk of being exposed to violence, either from war, terror or crime, is at an historic low. In addition, new technology and media opens up opportunities that we could not even dream of at the turn of the century.
This is not to ignore the suffering of the world’s poor, or to disregard the victims of war and terror, or those affected by climate change. There is clearly still a lot to do, and the world is far from perfect. But it is also important to acknowledge real progress when it happens, and to understand that at least part of this progress has been the fruition of persistent and coordinated efforts by the UN and the international community.
Of course, no UN document will by itself set the world towards a more sustainable path and stabilize the climate. But plans and strong declarations of intents do matter. To construct a house, you need a blueprint. To realize major infrastructure projects, you will have to formulate decisions and plans. And to govern a country, we need budgets, strategies and action plans. Practically any human-induced change of the physical environment (and much of the psychological environment as well for that matter) starts with a little sheet of paper.
The new UN agreements adopted last year seek to do the same thing at the global level, by formulating a collective sense of direction to all countries and regions worldwide on how to make development more sustainable. It also lays the foundation for a new form of partnership and cooperation, where all countries and stakeholders have a clear role to play both in implementing the agenda at national levels and in supporting others in their efforts.
What, then, is “new” about the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development?
First of all, the new agenda is more ambitious and concrete – with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 169 concrete targets and over 200 indicators to measure progress. The SDGs are transformational by nature, exemplified by SDG number one to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030 – often referred to by the motto of “leaving no-one behind”.
Secondly, the SDGs are universal, meaning that it is applicable to all countries, thereby challenging the outdated notion of rich countries supporting poor countries to become industrialized while avoiding to adapt their own domestic policies. Since no country in the world can claim to be sustainable, all countries should now be considered as “developing countries”!
Third, it is an integrated Agenda, that covers environmental, economic and social aspects of development much more comprehensively than before. At least 86 of the 169 targets concern environmental sustainability, including at least one in each of the 17 SDGs.
As the international community is preparing to support countries to fulfil this new visionary agenda, it will be crucial to ensure that the environmental aspects remains at the core also in its implementation. At the end of May, Environment Ministers from all nations worldwide will therefore gather in Nairobi for the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) – the world’s highest level decision-making body on the environment. The Overarching theme for the Assembly is Delivering on the Environmental Dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and it will include a high level policy review session on Healthy Environment, Healthy People.
The meeting will bring together more than 1800 delegates from governments, UN agencies, civil society and the private sector to manifest global leadership on environmental policy and provide a platform for new solutions. It will seek agreement on a high profile outcome document to provide political leadership and review implementation of the SDGs, and adopt more than 20 specific resolutions to address a range of environmental issues of global relevance, such as sustainable production and consumption, sound chemicals management, food waste and oceans governance.
This new and inspirational agenda will not be easy to achieve. But if we rally together, restructure our society, challenge the way we measure wellbeing and progress, and pool the unprecedented amount of resources and knowledge that humanity has at its disposal, it is entirely possible. UNEA-2 will play a fundamental role in ensuring that the environmental dimension remains center-stage when the implementation phase starts.
About the author
Ulf Björnholm took up his duties as Head of the United Nations Environment Programme‘s Liaison Office to the EU Institutions on 22 April 2014.
Prior to joining UNEP, he served in the European Commission where he played a leading role in developing a proposal for a new EU Clean Air Policy, presented in 2013, and in international UN negotiations relating to air pollution.
Mr. Björnholm has also held several positions as a representative and diplomat for the Swedish Government, both in Stockholm and abroad. In his role as a political advisor and negotiator on international environmental affairs for Sweden, he chaired and represented the EU at several UN/EU environmental negotiations during two EU Presidencies – in New York (2001) and in Brussels (2009). For more than seven years, he served as Environment and Climate Counsellor at the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels.
Ulf Björnholm has a Master of Science from the University of Lund.