How much progress is being made on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations’ (UN) member states in 2015
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nations’ (UN) member states in 2015. “A shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”, it is based on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the UN describes as an urgent call for action. The organization says that ending global poverty requires focusing on strategies that reduce inequality and spur economic growth, while also tackling climate change.
The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022 painted a worrying picture of progress in almost all areas, but the 2023 update delivers an even graver warning: “The promises enshrined in the SDGs are in peril,” the UN states. This year marks the halfway point to the 2030 Agenda deadline, increasing global urgency to ignite progress.
Once again, the widening economic gap between developed and developing nations, along with the uneven impacts of the climate crisis, are highlighted as of particular concern.
While the decline in SDG progress is universal, poorer countries are being disproportionately affected by the consequences, largely due to a lack of representation on the global stage, the UN warns. The number of people in extreme poverty is rising for the first time in a generation and is on track to reach 575 million by 2030.
Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with expectations that global temperatures will surpass the critical tipping point of 1.5°C above industrial levels in a little more than a decade. Extreme weather events are becoming more common as a result, along with rising sea levels, and vulnerable communities are being hit disproportionately hard, despite having contributed the least to climate change.
Some gains on the SDGs have been made since 2015 – including in child mortality, electricity access and the battle against certain diseases – but the report’s overall message is stark. “Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres says.
Here’s what you need to know about the state of progress on each of the 17 goals.
UN Sustainable Development Goals 2023 report card
1. No poverty
The report says four years of progress in reducing poverty has been erased by COVID-19 and the “recovery is slow and uneven”. Rising inflation and the war in Ukraine have caused further setbacks.
It’s estimated that as many as 670 million people are living in extreme poverty worldwide, putting the world on track to cut poverty by just 30% between 2015 and 2030. The UN says robust measures and investments are needed to promote economic growth, enhance education and provide social protection to all, especially the most marginalized individuals.
The number of people living in extreme poverty is rising. Image: United Nations
2. Zero hunger
Hunger and food insecurity have been increasing since 2015, further intensified by the compounding effects of the pandemic, conflict, climate change and widening inequalities. The UN estimates 9.2% of the world population faced chronic hunger in 2022 – this is 735 million people, up by 122 million from 2019.
Given the current polycrisis, swift global collaboration is imperative to effectively combat hunger and safeguard food security.
3. Good health and well-being
The impacts of the pandemic and other crises continue to take a toll on global health, but some progress has been made in recent years. For example, 146 out of 200 countries or areas have already met or are on track to meet the SDG target on the mortality rates of those aged under five. But much more needs to be done in other areas, including reducing maternal mortality and expanding universal health coverage.
Mortality rates of children under five are slowing in many countries. Image: United Nations
4. Quality education
The pandemic has caused severe disruption in 80% of the 104 countries studied. Without action, 84 million children and young people will remain out of school, and about 300 million students will lack essential literacy and numeracy skills.
While the current Goal 4 benchmarks are less ambitious than the original ones, there is still an average annual financing gap of $97 billion for low- and lower-middle-income countries.
5. Gender equality
The world remains a way off achieving gender equality by 2030. Only 15.4% of Goal 5 data indicators are “on track”, the UN says. Progress in areas like unpaid care and domestic work is falling behind, while nearly half of married women lack the power to make decisions over their sexual and reproductive health.
Violence against women remains endemic. Bold action is needed to accelerate progress through the promotion of laws, policies, budgets and institutions that promote gender equality.
6. Clean water and sanitation
Water demand is rising due to rapid population growth, increasing pressure from agriculture and industry, and threats to wetland ecosystems. While water use efficiency has seen a 9% improvement since 2015, concern about water stress and water scarcity is growing.
Current rates of progress will need to increase three- to six-fold to achieve safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. In 2022, 2.2 billion people still lacked safely managed drinking water, including 703 million without a basic water service. More efforts are needed to provide these and to increase cooperation among states across transboundary waters.
7. Affordable and clean energy
Around 660 million people will still be without electricity in 2030 if current trends continue. Slow progress towards clean cooking solutions means the health of over 2 billion people is also at risk.
While the world is advancing towards sustainable energy targets, achieving these as well as climate goals will mean a massive mobilization of public and private capital in renewable energy, especially in developing countries.
More people than ever have access to electricity, but the pace is lagging for least developed countries. Image: United Nations
8. Decent work and economic growth
The global economy is currently threatened by multiple crises, with persistent inflation, increasing interest rates and heightened uncertainties.
Global real GDP per capita growth is forecast to slow in 2023, leading to a decline in global unemployment, particularly among the young. But the pandemic has sped up digital adoption and improved access to finance. In 2021, 76% of adults globally had bank accounts or accounts with regulated institutions, a rise from 62% in 2014.
9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
Growth in global manufacturing slid to 3.3% in 2022 from 7.4% in 2021 amid a slow and uneven recovery from the pandemic, and the least developed countries are not on track to double the share of manufacturing in their GDP by 2030. As of 2022, 95% of the world’s population was within reach of a mobile broadband network, but some areas remain underserved.
The report says countries with strong infrastructure including internet connectivity are recovering more quickly. Despite the presence of 3G (or higher) broadband in most countries, the cost of devices and lack of literacy and digital skills remain steep barriers to internet adoption.
More than 95% of the world has mobile broadband access. Image: United Nations
10. Reduced inequalities
Income inequality was narrowing worldwide before COVID-19, but the pandemic “may have reversed some of this progress”, the report says. It has also intensified structural and systematic discrimination, leading to the worst between-country inequality in three decades. The number of refugees globally hit its highest on record in 2022, at 34.6 million.
11. Sustainable cities and communities
More than half the world’s population lives in cities – a rate that could rise to 70% by 2050. Over 1 billion people live in slums or informal settlements, with 2 billion more expected to be in this situation in the next 30 years. In 2022, only half of the world’s urban population had easy access to public transportation. Cities continue to face challenges such as urban sprawl, air pollution, and limited open public spaces. To achieve Goal 11, the focus needs to be on developing inclusive, resilient and sustainable urban policies that deliver basic services, affordable housing and efficient transportation.
12. Responsible consumption and production
Increasing reliance on natural resources has set the Earth on an unsustainable course, the UN says. This is causing the triple crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. And some parts of the world are creating more environmental impact than others: high-income countries have a material footprint per capita 10 times higher than low-income countries. Governments and citizens must work together to reduce waste and pollution and shape a new circular economy where we do more with less, the report says.
13. Climate action
The world is on the brink of a climate catastrophe and the window to avert it is closing rapidly. Vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected, despite having contributed least to the climate crisis, and are in urgent need of global climate financing. To limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be almost halved by 2030. However, under the current net-zero commitments of the 193 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, just a 0.3% decrease is predicted in this time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for immediate, deep and sustained curbing of global GHG emissions in all sectors.
Urgent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to stop temperatures rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Image: United Nations
14. Life below water
Continuing ocean acidification, plastic pollution and rising sea temperatures are threatening marine ecosystems. Some progress has been made in expanding marine protected areas, combating illegal fishing and supporting small-scale fishers, but more needs to be done. Over 17 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2021, while satellite imagery reveals elevated coastal eutrophication – the over-enrichment of water by nutrients such as nitrogen phosphorous – globally in 2022, the report says. Swift and coordinated action is needed to counter the decline in ocean health.
15. Life on land
Forest loss, land degradation and species extinction remain major threats to the planet and people, despite positive developments in forest management, environmental policy and accounting. Global forest coverage decreased from 31.9% in 2000 to 31.2% in 2020, and extinction risk across mammal, bird, amphibian and coral species has accelerated by about 11% since 1993. A “fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with nature is essential”, and there are hopes the newly adopted Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework will boost momentum on Goal 15.
16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
Conflict-related civilian deaths rose by 50% in 2022, largely due to the war in Ukraine. At the end of the year, a record 108.4 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide – an increase of 19 million compared with the end of 2021. Global homicides are at a 20-year high, in part due to the economic impacts of the pandemic and socio-political disruption, the UN says.
Civilian deaths have risen for the first time since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, jumping by 53% between 2021 and 2022. Ending armed conflicts, strengthening institutions and enacting human rights legislation are all necessary preconditions for sustainable development.
17. Partnerships for the Goals
Record inflation, rising interest rates and growing debt burdens mean many developing countries are finding it harder than ever to thrive economically after the pandemic. While global trade increased rapidly after COVID-era restrictions were lifted, the outlook in 2023 is “subdued” as a result of worsening economic conditions. Internet access has increased by 65% since 2015, but progress on closing the digital divide has slowed post-pandemic.
Geopolitical tensions and nationalism are hindering international coordination on important global issues. A collective global effort to provide developing countries with the financing and technologies they need is essential if we are to accelerate implementation of the SDGs, the UN says.
Building momentum on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Making concrete progress on the SDGs is a key component of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings taking place in New York between 18 and 22 September 2023. The meetings will bring together business leaders, policymakers and international civil society organizations, and will aim to build momentum on other key upcoming milestones such as COP28 and the Forum’s annual meeting in January 2024.