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How can we get the SDGs back on track for 2030?

27 September 2023

Halfway to 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals are “far off track”, the UN has warned. 

How can we get the SDGs back on track for 2030?
Image credit: Shutterstock

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a "shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future", run from 2015 to 2030.

At the halfway point, the UN's 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report has warned that the goals are “far off track”.

Why are the SDGs off-track?

The report, which echoes other findings this year, highlights that a combination of the pandemic, armed conflicts, a cost-of-living and debt crisis, and climate-related disasters have hindered progress on the SDGs.

Implementation is too slow. And in some areas, such as climate action, biodiversity loss, and inequality, progress was already reversing before the pandemic.

There are 17 Goals in total, and beneath them, 169 targets.

In July, the UN released the results of “a preliminary assessment of the roughly 140 targets for which data is available”.

It found that:

  • Only about 12% are on track.
  • More than half are moderately or severely off track.
  • 30% have seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline.

The Sustainable Development Report highlighted the urgency of meeting the goals.

“Without an urgent course correction” on the SDGs, we risk “prolonged periods of crisis and uncertainty triggered by the reinforcing effects of poverty, inequality, hunger, disease, conflict, and disaster”.

ICE President Keith Howells’s inaugural address set out the importance of delivering for future generations, with real examples of how infrastructure can positively influence progress towards the SDGs.

Is it now too late to achieve the SDGs by 2030?

The report finds that the same crises driving a decline in sustainable development offer opportunities for recovery.

It also identifies improving awareness of the SDGs and a commitment to achieving them – even if this hasn’t translated into action.

The ICE has previously looked at how some governments embed the SDGs into their decision-making and policy processes, which is one of the report’s priority areas.

Fears are growing that the SDGs are beyond our grasp. The steps needed to achieve them by 2030 are significant.

But they aren’t impossible.

They include higher levels of ambition, transformative policies, and a coordinated approach across countries.

How to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

The 2019 Sustainable Development Report suggested six “entry points” – conceptual ‘bundles’ of interrelated systems.

These bundles allow countries to take advantage of overlap across SDG targets while minimising negative trade-offs with other targets.

They are:

  • Human wellbeing and capabilities: providing basic needs that then free individuals to focus on developing and driving change.
  • Sustainable and just economies: changing how people live, work, produce and consume so that economic activity doesn’t mean inequality and environmental damage.
  • Sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition: changing food production, distribution, sales, and consumption, and reducing waste to improve health and social equality.
  • Energy decarbonisation with universal access: ending the use of fossil fuels and the use of solid fuels for cooking to address the climate crisis and improve universal access to energy.
  • Urban and peri-urban development: with half the world's population living in cities, this bundle focuses on prioritising social equity, health, and wellbeing in urban areas.
  • Global environmental commons: protecting shared global resources such as oceans, polar regions, forests, freshwater, and biodiversity.

Conceptualising action into one or more of these bundles is one way to focus efforts and speed up change in a coordinated fashion across different tiers of government and multilateral partnerships.

Capacity building is essential

The 2023 report sees policy capacity building as “essential for the transformation process”.

It calls for capacity building in five areas:

  • developing strategic direction and foresight
  • innovation and generating new policy alternatives
  • working across silos and with all stakeholders
  • identifying impediments
  • learning and developing resilience

The ICE-led Enabling Better Infrastructure programme is designed to support capacity building.

It does this by helping governments, departments, and senior political advisors strengthen the processes to create a stable, sustainable, and investable infrastructure project pipeline.

The programme helps governments develop strategic direction and foresight for their infrastructure investments.

It encourages innovation and new policy by bringing together senior government officials from around the world to share knowledge on how to improve strategic infrastructure planning.

EBI guidance also reinforces the value of involving a wide group of stakeholders in developing infrastructure investment plans.

Civil engineers and infrastructure professionals can make a huge difference

The ICE is working to understand which SDG targets our members’ work influences, and to what degree.

This will focus our work over the coming seven years by helping us understand where we have the greatest impact.

Civil engineers and infrastructure professionals can make a huge difference – 72% of the SDG targets are linked to networked infrastructure development.

This means the profession can play a leading role in economic growth, environmental protection, social progress, and climate resilience.

We want to hear from you

What more could governments be doing to enable the profession to achieve the SDGs? Share your thoughts, or ideas for ICE policy development in this area, with [email protected].

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  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers