It’s sustainability summit season in New York City again. On 10-19 July 2023, hundreds of diplomats and ministers, activists, journalists and scientists gathered in sweltering Manhattan for the annual meeting of the UN “High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development”. Governments had created this forum in 2012 as an annual venue to review how countries progressed towards sustainability. Since the launch of the 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” in 2015, the forum’s focus has been on reviewing the implementation of these global goals.
When delegates arrived at UN headquarters in New York, it was clear that the implementation of these SDGs was far behind schedule. Ahead of their meeting, the UN Secretary-General had presented governments with a progress report on the SDGs that opened with the dramatic subtitle “Towards a Rescue Plan for People and Planet”. The UN concluded that it is “time to sound the alarm” and that at this mid-way point to 2030, when the SDGs are supposed to be achieved, the goals are instead “in deep trouble”. Only 12% of the roughly 140 SDG targets with data are on track, about half are “moderately or severely off track,” and for 30%, the UN saw no movement at all or even a regression towards unsustainability. These findings are in line with the independent 2022 SDG Impact Assessment, a global study of 61 experts on the political steering effects of the SDGs, led by the GlobalGoals Project. At most, this assessment found, the SDGs had discursive impacts and changed how politicians and others communicate about sustainable development. Far-reaching transformations in political institutions, funding streams, policies or laws, however, appear to be rare.
Viewed in light of this worrying situation, this month’s High-level Political Forum in New York was disappointing. Minister after minister took the floor, and with only slight variations all concurred that the world is in a deep crisis, but that their government would do their very best and remain fully committed to the SDGs. In any case, no formal decisions were on the agenda in New York, and the forum was only the precursor for a larger “SDG Summit” to be held on 18-19 September 2023, where governments plan to agree on a Political Declaration to set the course to global transformational change. This Political Declaration is currently being negotiated; most likely, it will largely reiterate and reaffirm the promises that governments made in 2015 in their “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and the 17 SDGs.
And yet, not all was distressing in New York. First, a central element of the High-level Political Forum’s work is the discussion of the Voluntary National Reviews that governments present every few years to their peers in New York. This year, some governments presented their “VNR” for the second time, and the European Union had a first opportunity to showcase its sustainability policies. Even though these presentations of VNRs may appear at first glance to be an exercise in public relations—often with smooth videos with dramatic music and engaging photos of beautiful scenery and solar panels—they also gave evidence of some progress, new policies, and emerging serious commitment. The growing role of civil society was evident as well. Some governments presented their VNRs together with speakers from youth and civil society, and a few VNRs were written in broad national consultations with societal stakeholders. Some governments also received a fair amount of criticism by the civil society representatives present in the audience.
Yet despite all the useful data in the VNRs, the High-level Political Forum lacks a mandate to formally assess whether countries comply with the SDGs. The forum is meant to discuss, share, and learn—not for compliance control. While this peer-learning effect is difficult to measure, anecdotal evidence suggests that the voluntary national reviews do lead to some discursive shifts and implicitly and informally shape broader norms. The forum offers a process of soft, careful and collegial nudging; nothing like the strict compliance mechanisms that one may find within legally binding agreements, but still an arena for global discourse and deliberation.
What is also different from the earlier Commission on Sustainable Development, which the High-level Political Forum has replaced since 2012, is the broadening of attendance. While the old commission attracted mainly ministers of environment or development, at the High-level Political Forum, one now finds ministers of commerce and industry, water and sanitation, EU and constitutional affairs, finance, planning, economy and finance, environment and climate, and some designated “ministers of sustainable development”. The range of portfolios shows the breadth of the High-level Political Forum and the many interlinked issues that need to be addressed under the SDGs.
Moreover, the High-level Political Forum came with many formal side events and informal gatherings, where countries, international organizations and civil society presented their progress but also their concerns with sustainability. Government officials also used the forum to meet their counterparts, and the cafés and delegates’ lounges brimmed with informal meetings of politicians, civil servants and societal actors. And not only national ministries were involved, but representatives of regional governments, local councils and implementation agencies had a chance, often for the first time, to meet their counterparts from other parts of the globe who often face similar challenges. The High-level Political Forum, as many other global summits, serves here a socializing function that helps to integrate local actors into a global discourse community, within the normative framework of the 17 SDGs.
As a global gathering arena, the High-level Political Forum thus comes close to the Forum in ancient Rome—the open square in the centre of the city where politicians would closely intermingle, loudly discuss and fiercely argue about the state of their republic, while the actual law-making and rule-setting was conducted elsewhere. Also today’s UN High-level Political Forum is not a place for decisions, for new agreements, for strict accountability and compliance. It is not a steering mechanism with any formal authority, and it does not offer a strong monitoring and accountability framework through which to realize the SDGs.
And this is where the problem might lie. In 2012, a group of 33 scholars called for a much stronger institution: a “UN Sustainable Development Council” that would allow for more authoritative and more consequential discussions, and for more impactful policymaking. The High-level Political Forum is not comparable to such a potentially powerful UN body, and further reforms to strengthen global sustainability governance are needed.
Looking ahead, the United Nations is now calling for a “Summit of the Future” to be held in September 2024—another summit to set the stage for global transformation, presented as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance”. New issues will be on the agenda, ranging from a possible global digital compact to prosperity measurement beyond gross domestic product and reforms of the international financial architecture. According to current planning documents, the summit might also seek to “Reinvigorate the multilateral system and strengthen global governance to respond to current and future challenges, in line with the UN Charter and international law; [and] Identify and address gaps in global governance, especially those that have emerged as obstacles to the achievement of Agenda 2030”.
A reinvigoration of global governance is urgently needed, indeed. It is not that multilateralism does not work at all. New treaties have been agreed to in recent years or are being negotiated, from addressing plastic pollution to the protection of the high seas. Other issues are likely to be addressed soon by new sets of rules, for example addressing pollution of outer space. The process of multilateral rulemaking is marching on; yet it is marching too slowly given the urgency of the global sustainability crisis. More fundamental reforms in global governance are needed. The run-up to the 2024 Summit of the Future is thus an important moment for scholars and activists to move ahead with pushing for an ambitious and progressive reform agenda for a better, more effective and more just global multilateral system.