“The Kind of Aggressive Timeline the World Needs.”

Marc Beckmann
Sustainable Development

Three years into the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit recently brought together an international community of leaders from business, governments, the United Nations, and civil society for a multi-stakeholder stocktaking on progress towards the achievement of the global goals. Jeffrey D. Sachs, renowned professor of economics and leader in sustainable development, has doubts whether the goals will be met by 2030.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are relevant for almost everybody on the planet, but they are largely unknown. Why is that?

Jeffrey Sachs: There has been quite an outreach to various expert communities, UN agencies, and national governments. However, getting the attention of the broader public is a different story. Attention spans are finite, and long-term complex challenges such as achieving the global goals have to compete with daily news events, celebrities, and so on. This is natural, but it is also a major hindrance that something as important as the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals are not well known to the public. There is almost no mentioning of them in the U.S. media. The Trump Administration never says a word about them – and probably never will.

What about companies committed to the SDGs or UN campaigns?

Jeffrey Sachs: Many companies know about the SDGs. The SDGs are being incorporated in company reports and sustainability practices. This is a very important advance. Yet there is still important work to do in standardizing company reports about the SDGs. These reports should be a serious assessment of challenges, not only a report of successes. 

Jeffrey Sachs2030 Agenda

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs serves as the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on the Sustainable Development Goals, and previously advised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on both the Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Development Goals. Sachs is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on economic development, global macroeconomics, and the fight against poverty. Time magazine called him “the world’s best known economist.”

The new SDG Index indicates that progress is way too slow to reach the goals by 2030. What is the reason for this implementation gap?

Jeffrey Sachs: Nothing about the SDGs is self-implementing. The whole reason we have them is that they are not a natural outcome of the market economy or political processes. We need to change some of our core operating systems, especially for power generation, mobility, food production, and finance, in order to achieve the global goals. By implementing the global goals, we want to change direction of how the world works in three different ways: reach prosperity in large parts of the world that don’t have prosperity today; promote broad social inclusion, including within the rich societies; and achieve high living standards in an environmentally safe and sustainable way.

So our current system is diametrically opposed to the global goals?

Jeffrey Sachs: The current market and political systems definitely promote a high degree of income and wealth inequality. And these political and economic systems do not produce environmental sustainability. Instead we have three looming environmental crises: human-induced climate change, mass extinction of other species, and massive chemical pollution. The complex challenges we are dealing with require a massive political effort, a large social consensus, and technical knowledge. And on top of this, you have people like President Donald Trump who aggressively work against these objectives.

"The complex challenges we are dealing with require a massive political effort, a large social consensus, and technical knowledge."
Jeffrey Sachs
2030 Agenda
Participants of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Forum in Chile discuss the SDGs. Marc Beckmann

U.S. President Donald Trump certainly makes no secret of his refusal to act, but other governments are also hesitant to put the SDGs on their agenda.

Jeffrey Sachs: In general, I don’t think our governments are asking the right questions. They don’t regard the SDGs as an opportunity to solve problems. They either ignore them or regard them as some kind of sideshow. Yet the SDGs are central for our well-being. If we don’t achieve them, our world will be unstable and increasingly dangerous. Yet these goals will not succeed on their own, or as the result of the “invisible hand” of market forces. No single company can succeed. We need a global consensus and politics that look to the long term, not just to the short-term gimmick. 

Ngorongoro Crater Safrai – 5th Global Table Conference by the BMW-Foundation–Claudia Leisinger-25

Sustainable Development Goals

September 25, 2018, marked the 3rd anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In September 2015, world leaders gathered at the UN to adopt 17 global goals to achieve several extraordinary things by 2030: end poverty, promote prosperity and well-being for all, and protect the planet. The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt inspires leaders worldwide to work towards a peaceful, just, and sustainable future. Through our activities, we aim to advance the Sustainable Development Goals.

Which SDGs will most likely be achieved by 2030?

Jeffrey Sachs: The SDGs should not be seen as 17 single goals but as an interconnected package to achieve the combination of economic growth, poverty reduction, social inclusion, and environmental safety. If we can gain the attention and knowledge of what to do, many of the goals will come as a package deal. For example: If we get our act together and get all children in school, which is SDG#4 (Quality Education), we will almost certainly also achieve SDG#3 (Good Health and Well-Being). If we seriously address climate change, including SDG#13 (Climate Action) and SDG#7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), then we will almost surely succeed with SDG#14 (Life Below Water) and SDG#15 (Life on Land). The real question is: How can we mobilize the attention, awareness, expertise, and political will to choose a new and better direction at a global level? That’s the hard part. Especially in this time scale of 12 years.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Unfortunately, this kind of mobilizing is not happening right now. Is this due to a lack of SDG priority ranking?

Jeffrey Sachs: Countries need plans, and some of them are pretty good at making plans. China is quite effective in thinking ahead to build its infrastructure, whereas many countries in Europe and the United States abandoned a lot of planning 20 years ago. Too many governments are more interested in battling the next election than in solving complex problems. We are not paying attention to what is serious and we are not doing the kind of technical homework to get the job done. This is true even in Germany, which I would rank among the top countries in the world with the capacity to provide technical answers to these kinds of challenges.

2030 Agenda
Market in Arusha in northeastern Tanzania. The city is close to the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Claudia Leisinger

Is the achievement of the SDGs a matter of money or a matter of political will?

Jeffrey Sachs: It is combination of political will, money, and know-how. We need the know-how and expertise to advance the goals. This kind of expertise can be found in businesses, universities, and all kinds of engineering.

Expertise is important but so is the financial back-up.

Jeffrey Sachs: Of course, investments are needed to carry this out. This requires an understanding of the different financial options. Part of financing is to devote national budgets to the implementation of the SDGs. The idea, for example, that Germany is being pushed to spend 2% of its GDP on defense is ridiculous, when the money would be better used for diplomacy, development assistance, and climate financing. We should be investing much more in diplomacy, to stop the expensive and destructive wars, and use the money we save to save the planet. Spending more on diplomacy and development and less on the military would be vastly better for our security than blindly investing in military means.

Impact investing is a great tool to finance the implementation of the SDGs in a sustainable way. Are there any guidelines providing orientation?

Jeffrey Sachs: Impact investors should align with the SDGs. Then they would have a clear purpose and know what the objectives are. Impact investors should also understand the ecosystem of complex sustainable development problem-solving, because no impact investor alone is going to reach the SDGs. Partnerships and complementary investments will be needed. Each individual investor can add pieces of a solution, he/she can add innovation and provide new ways of service delivery. But in the end, each investor is part of a broader ecosystem, which includes governments, businesses, civil society, and academia.

"Each investor is part of a broader ecosystem, which includes governments, businesses, civil society, and academia."
Jeffrey Sachs

What is your advice to impact investors that want to be part of this solution?

Jeffrey Sachs: Get the bigger picture and situate your investment within the broader SDG policy framework to make the SDGs work. In order to be effective, there are certain things investors need to understand better than they do now: the national policy framework, the government’s intended action, the work of the UN agencies. Most businesses don’t know these policy processes in depth. They want to get down to business practicalities. But the kind of problem-solving needed for the SDGs is only partly market-driven. It is intrinsically complex and driven by multi-stakeholders.

Sounds complicated....

Jeffrey Sachs: Of course, achieving the SDGs in practice will require a tremendous amount of expertise. Let’s take the German Energiewende as an example: those in charge should be convening Germany’s and Europe’s energy experts, especially its top engineers, and ask them a series of questions: How can Europe link together a zero-carbon energy system at continental scale? How can we speed up the timeline to move to zero-emission vehicles as is needed to achieve the Paris climate agreement? I personally believe that great companies like the BMW Group could basically be all-electric by 2030 for personal vehicles and many commercial vehicles. That is the kind of aggressive timeline the world needs. And it will create global competitiveness and huge markets in the future.

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