Are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Working?

Climate action is a fundamental part of the goals, but progress has fallen behind

By Emily Driehaus

September 28, 2023

Illustration of a person chasing a globe

Illustration by iStock/ Yutthana Gaetgeaw

When world leaders gathered in New York City last week to kick off the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, chief among their long list of issues was tackling climate change. A central part of the UN strategy for combating climate chaos is a list of ambitions known as the Sustainable Development Goals, but a raft of new research from NGOs, academics, and even the UN itself reveal that many of the goals are stalled—or are experiencing setbacks. 

The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, were adopted by UN member states in 2015 as a way to “stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet.” The 17 goals call for actions to help eradicate issues like poverty, hunger, and gender inequality while promoting an environmentally sustainable standard of living for all people by 2030. Given the fact that ending societal harms can only be achieved if the planet is habitable, many of the goals have specific environmental and climate-change-related targets.

Last week’s summit served as a halfway check-in point to evaluate progress toward achieving these lofty ambitions by 2030. Like previous years’ SDG reports, this year’s report card was not encouraging. Only 15 percent of the 169 targets that fall under the 17 goals are on track, with many even facing setbacks due to the pandemic, armed conflicts, the cost-of-living crisis, and continued environmental degradation. 

“While there have been setbacks, we cannot relent in our resolve and determination to do our utmost to rescue the SDGs, as we have been challenged by the Secretary-General,” said UN General Assembly president Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago during his opening address. “The fact that we are lagging in our promise cannot be a death knell of our blueprint.”

The slow progress spurred the general assembly to adopt a declaration to “accelerate SDG progress,” which UN Secretary-General António Guterres called “a game-changer” in a speech to the assembly. The declaration reaffirms the commitment from member states to achieve the goals by 2030. But making progress on these targets isn’t as simple as recommitting to getting back on track. 

The United Nations is a forum of nation-states, but the private sector is involved in funding and collaborating on many UN efforts, including the SDGs. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed has even said that the goals will fail without investments and support from the private sector. But some public interest groups take another view. They warn that corporate involvement in the SDGs might not be having the intended effect of helping to accomplish the goals.  

An upcoming report from nonprofit watchdog group Corporate Accountability details how large corporations are taking advantage of the Sustainable Development Goals to greenwash their investments while having no way to actually account for what they’re doing. The report concludes that companies like Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s say they are working to advance the targets of the SDGs and “position themselves as a solution to the crises their business practices continue to exacerbate.” In other words, these companies claim they are advancing the SDGs while they are actively participating in activities that undermine those very goals, like saying they are helping ocean cleanup efforts while continuing to manufacture more plastic bottles. This makes it difficult for stakeholders and the public to know what these companies are spending their money on, since they have not set any standardized procedures for reporting their supposed impacts on SDG progress. A company can say it is investing in forest conservation but doesn’t have to disclose any of the specifics, making it harder for stakeholders to track how much money is actually being spent on the effort and allowing the company to make claims that boost its reputation and influence. 

“There is hardly any progress being made,” said Ashka Naik, a lead researcher with Corporate Accountability. “And where progress has been claimed, we couldn’t find even one place where we could see how the methodology was implemented to calculate their progress or that impact.”

By positioning themselves as SDG champions, these companies have a foothold in UN institutions and decision-making. However, while these corporations say that they are making good on their commitments to the SDGs, the report says they are doing exactly the opposite. They can say they are participating in these causes, but they can continue to operate out of sight and not have to hit any quantifiable, specific benchmarks because the policy they’ve influenced doesn’t hold them to any commitments they make. 

“Inviting the private sector as a partner is dangerous because, in our humble view, they have played a role in slowing progress toward the SDGs because their motive is not to help the SDGs—their motive is to make money for the shareholders,” Naik said. “Yes, these corporations have to do their part in ensuring the world eradicates poverty and fights the climate crisis. But should they be at the same table as the policies are actually being made?”

In addition to corporate meddling, progress on the Sustainable Development Goals is also being hampered by a lack of focus on climate change. A 2021 report from the World Meteorological Organization found that rising greenhouse gas emissions will affect all 17 goals, not just those directly concerning climate change and the environment. Carbon pollution will continue to exacerbate climate change, which will in turn have impacts on food systems, which will affect goals relating to hunger and poverty. Climate change will also drive resource scarcity, which may threaten international peace and drive conflicts. 

Despite climate change’s links to all 17 of the goals, researchers argue that it has not been sufficiently integrated into efforts to meet the goals. A recent article in Nature Climate Change argues that the goals have been too siloed from one another and instead need to be interconnected in order to achieve anything. According to the authors, quantifiable climate activities make up less than 20 percent of countries’ nationally determined contributions to the SDGs, a figure they argue needs to be much higher. They say that countries “should not only look at their current achievements across the SDGs, but also consider the long-term implications for and by climate change in their voluntary national reports and national sustainable development strategies.”

There’s still a chance to meet some of the goals by 2030, but it will take bold action and reforms, according to researchers. A new report in Science says that the responsibility for achieving the goals is uneven, with higher-income countries cherry picking goals that are more attainable for them rather than focusing on goals that would require more aggressive action and investment, like clean energy. In other words, rich countries are not doing enough to tackle the harder, environmental goals, while countries in the Global South are, quite literally, drowning, and soon may not even have a country in which to implement goals. Tuvalu’s minister of finance, Seve Paeniu, summed up this fear during a speech in New York last week. 

“The existential threat posed by climate change to Tuvalu undermines the successful implementation of the SDGs,” he said. “The key message here is the habitable land of Tuvalu is already succumbing to sea level rise, and even the lowest, most optimistic projections of sea level rise by 2100 will leave most of Tuvalu untenable for human habitation.”