Research:

Evaluating Progress on the SDGs

By Aiste Brackley

Our research shows that overall progress on the SDGs has been lagging, and while the momentum has been building around some goals, many others continue to lack attention and necessary resources.

This September marks the two-year anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For the latest iteration of The GlobeScan / SustainAbility Surveys, we chose to focus on the progress made on the SDGs. We asked global sustainability experts to evaluate achievements made so far on each goal, rank their relative urgency and also share insights into the SDG priorities in their own organizations.

We were not surprised to find out that practitioners remain concerned about the lack of progress on the SDGs and sustainable development in general. The goals are new, and progress was expected to be limited. Non-governmental organizations, social entrepreneurs and the United Nations are seen as doing the most to advance the goals. In contrast, national governments and the private sector are perceived to be performing very poorly.

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One of the most encouraging survey findings is the ever-growing recognition of the urgency to address climate change.

One of the most encouraging survey findings is the ever-growing recognition of the urgency to address climate change. SDG 13 Climate Action is seen by the experts as the most vital goal for society to focus on to achieve overall progress on sustainable development. Climate Action is also the goal that currently receives the most attention within organizations and is among the SDGs that have seen the most progress in recent years.

Figure 1: Most important SDG for society to focus on to achieve the most progress (% of experts)

Data Chart Taken from The GlobeScan-SustainAbiltiy Survey

Question: Which of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do you think are the most important for society to focus on in order to achieve the most progress toward sustainable development? Please choose at most three goals in order of importance.

While these are encouraging trends, long-term progress will require addressing sustainable development issues in a systemic fashion, recognizing their inter-related nature and the importance of each SDG – so far this has not been the case.

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It is our ambivalence towards the impending crisis facing the global oceans that is particularly alarming.

Goals related to hunger, biodiversity and poverty are difficult to tackle and continue to receive limited attention within organizations. But it is our ambivalence towards the impending crisis facing the global oceans that is particularly alarming. Not only do polled experts see SDG 14 (Life Below Water) as the least important goal to the overall progress on sustainable development but it is also the SDG where society’s level of achievement has been lagging the most. Moreover, Life Below Water is also among the SDGs that currently receive the least attention inside polled organizations.

Figure 2: SDG receiving the most attention within own organization (% of experts)

Data Chart Taken from The GlobeScan-SustainAbiltiy Survey

Question: Which of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), if any, receive the most attention within your own organization (or within your own work if more applicable)? Please choose at most three goals.

It is hard to overstate the importance of oceans to the ecological and economic systems – oceans affect nearly every aspect of life on earth and the global economy. Seafood is the world’s largest traded food commodity and oceans generate goods and services worth an estimated $2.5 trillion per year, according to WWF. More than 3 billion people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, which is vital to their survival and wellbeing.

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It is hard to overstate the importance of oceans to the ecological and economic systems.

Ensuring ocean health will be a critical aspect of creating sustainable food systems and solving global food security crisis. But ocean health has been in rapid decline. Warming sea temperature, acidification, pollution and overfishing are caused by human economic activities and are all contributing to ocean stress. Eighty-five percent of marine fish stocks are estimated to be either fully exploited or overfished, and oceans are facing unprecedented threat of marine species extinction.

While the overall recognition of the global ocean crisis has been lagging, some organizations are starting to demonstrate signs of much-needed leadership. Our research shows that the most effective way for the private sector to have impact on the goals is by creating products and services in line with the SDGs and participating in collaborative initiatives, and these are the priority areas that companies should explore.

Among the most promising collaborative platforms is the World Economic Forum’s recently launched New Vision for the Oceans Initiative. Supported by the Benioff Ocean Initiative of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, the public-private partnership aims to bring together public, private and civil society sector stakeholders to achieve SDG 14.

Companies are also starting to think more creatively and responsibly about products and services. In an effort to boost closed loop production models and reduce plastic pollution, Adidas aims to create more than 1 million pairs of sneakers this year using ocean plastic, and other companies are launching campaigns to educate consumers about plastic waste (e.g. Sky Ocean Rescue). Integrated fisheries and biofuel production and vertical fish farming are among emerging technologies that may offer solutions for replacing unsustainable fishing practices. And while the global cruising industry remains a major polluter of oceans, it is under growing pressure from stakeholders and is starting to take steps to become more sustainable.

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The SDGs have given businesses a lens through which to focus their sustainability efforts.

Progress on the SDGs has been slow, particularly on issues such as Life Below Water and Zero Hunger, but our research is also showing growing momentum and signs of coalescence around the SDGs. The SDGs have given businesses a lens through which to focus their sustainability efforts, and companies are beginning to see material opportunities in the SDGs, rather than feeling like they need to respond to the SDGs solely due to internal and external pressures or competitive dynamics.

The complexity of sustainable development problems faced by the global community underlines the urgent need for new forms of leadership enabled by new systems and business models. While we’re still in the early days of the journey toward achieving the SDGs, the spirit of the SDGs is nothing new. It is time for a step change before 2030 comes and goes.

About the author

Aiste Brackley

@aistebrackley

Research Manager passionate about data, climate change, women’s leadership and jazz. Ultimate believer in human creativity and potential.