FEATURE: Climate change and sustainability key to future development agenda, says former UN official

24 February 2015

As United Nations Member States come together to launch the future sustainable development agenda, 2015 seems set to be a year of momentous change for the international community.

This year marks the end of implementation of the landmark UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which world leaders agreed on 15 years ago in an effort to tackle poverty and climate change and to pave the way towards a more gender equal global society. The new targets, to be known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are defining the way forward on the world’s most pressing issues until the next critical deadline in 2030.

Overall, there has been significant progress in meeting the MDG targets. Global poverty has been halved well ahead of the 2015 deadline; in developing countries, 90 per cent of children now enjoy primary education; the number of people lacking access to improved drinking water has halved; and the fight against malaria and tuberculosis has shown results.

Nonetheless, numerous challenges persist. Globally, 73 million young people are looking for work and many more are trapped in exploitative jobs. In recent years, more than two and a half million more children in affluent countries fell into poverty, bringing the total above 76 million.


Worldwide, an estimated 805 million people are chronically undernourished. Since many persons with disabilities live in absolute poverty, these two large populations overlap to a considerable extent, making food security of utmost importance. UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Meanwhile, children and adolescents continue to bear the brunt of some of the world’s deadliest conflicts. In Nigeria last April, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram. In Pakistan in December, terrorists killed 132 children at school and on the same day in Yemen, more than a dozen schoolgirls were killed in a car bombing. Children are at risk in the Central African Republic, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan.

As the UN moves forward with the SDGs, questions inevitably remain: how will the SDGs and the post-2015 development agenda differ from its predecessor? What are the challenges that lie on the road ahead? And what is needed to make a new sustainable development agenda work?

Enter Sir Richard Jolly: a towering octogenarian whose nimble reflections on the UN’s post-2015 agenda have lent context to what is destined to be a critical pivot year for global development. In fact, there are few UN experts around who boast an institutional memory as prodigious as Mr. Jolly’s or who have such a fine grasp of the Organization’s own development agenda. A former Assistant Secretary-General, holding senior positions at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Mr. Jolly was also the architect of the widely celebrated Human Development Report as well as the author of some 20 books spanning everything from the UN’s history to the resilient successes of UN ideas.

During his visit to UN Headquarters in New York last month, Mr. Jolly broke down the elements of the UN’s momentous shift in development, noting that while the MDGs had established an initial consensus on what the development goals for the 21st century should be, the SDGs remained “fundamentally” and “strategically” different, expanding upon the MDGs and reframing the agendas and policies for the next decade and a half.

“The SDGs are universal, which is a major advance,” explained Mr. Jolly in a recent interview with the UN News Centre. “Instead of the North speaking to the South, we’re now really recognizing that all countries need to take action for all peoples. Secondly, the SDGs are integrating sustainability and climate change. That again is a fundamental shift from the MDGs that I think was very important.”


Sustainable development goals. Credits: Sustainable development goals UN website

Climate change in focus

The 17 new SDGs, crafted by a working group of the 193-member UN General Assembly and expected to be adopted by world leaders in September 2015, have pushed sustainability and the fight against climate change to the forefront of the UN agenda. Twelve of the 17 goals underscore the importance of sustainable development in key areas, from urban planning to economic growth, while acknowledging the need to take “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” across the planet.

“With respect to climate change, the evidence is becoming so overwhelming that last year was the hottest year ever recorded in Britain and ever recorded in the world,” Mr. Jolly said. “Gradually, people are beginning to see these problems despite the naysayers.”

In early February, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) once again confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record and part of a larger climate trend of devastating weather patterns and increasing temperatures.

High sea temperatures contributed to exceptionally heavy rainfall and floods in many countries and extreme drought in others. Twelve major Atlantic storms battered the United Kingdom in the early months of 2014, while floods devastated much of the Balkans throughout May. The monthly precipitation over the Pacific side of western Japan for August 2014, meanwhile, was 301 per cent above normal – the highest since area-averaged statistics began in 1946.

At the same time, crippling droughts have struck large swathes of the continental United States, while north-east China and parts of the Yellow River basin did not reach half of the summer average, causing severe drought. The brutal reality of the changing global climate was brought into clearer perspective when the WMO also pointed out that 14 of the 15 hottest years recorded have all been in the 21st century.

“I think there is the recognition that some global action on climate change, though probably implemented nationally and with a rather weak international agreement, is going to happen,” Mr. Jolly added.


Despite progress with the MDGs, many challenges remain. Children and adolescents, for instance, continue to bear the brunt of some of the world’s deadliest conflicts. Children remain at risk in Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan. Photo: UNHCR/B. Kinashchuk

Challenges ahead

Mr. Jolly’s sober assessment is built on the restrained engagement of global stakeholders on issues of sustainability caused, in large part, by the massive 2008 financial crisis that crippled economies and plunged millions of people into unemployment. The UN’s pivot year on development, in fact, comes with numerous Member States still reeling from the crisis’ after-effects, prompting Mr. Jolly to warn that international action had suddenly become “tragically weak” amid a “narrow-minded” and “un-UN-like” international perspective.

“I think it is right to look at the failures of the industrial countries at the moment because to my mind they are very cautious. After a brilliant 2009 G20 meeting which really did look at the need for global action, all the actions agreed on internationally then fell apart for political reasons,” he stated. “I think it’s a major, major challenge.”

In addition, notwithstanding the gains made by the MDGs, economic problems continue to plague many across the globe and pose potential problems for the SDG roll-out.


Currently, some 770 million people worldwide lack access to an improved water source and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation. The UN has long urged countries to collaborate on increasing access to clean water and sanitation and improve water management for irrigation and productive uses, which has the potential of lifting millions out of poverty and hunger. Photo: UNDP Niger/Rabo Yahaya

Mr. Jolly observed, however, that the continuing work to reach development goals had boosted awareness of poverty, prompting the need for national and international bodies to take action which, he said, was a “positive.”

“On the whole, most governments and the international system have understood human goals, and human poverty reduction and human advances. That is just extraordinary,” the former UN official acknowledged.

“So, the SDGs and the MDGs have historical significance that is very impressive and important to recognize. And, I would add that sustainability and climate change are making people realize there is a single global system. That again is an extraordinary positive.”


Today’s generation of youth is the largest the world has ever known. Most of those young people live in developing countries and face numerous challenges: an estimated 75 million youth are unemployed globally; a large number of young people are affected by war and conflict; others suffer widespread lack of access to education and other services. “Put simply, young people deserve a better deal,” UNDP chief, Helen Clark, has said. “And let’s hope the post-2015 development agenda delivers that.” UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Mr. Jolly made no forecast for the success of the SDGs but he did admit that as the international community devotes the next 15 years to realizing them, the mobilization of global support and awareness alone would qualify as a paramount achievement.

“That’s what I would define as success,” he concluded. “The more people know about them and change expectations, the better.”


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