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2019: why business should still care about the Sustainable Development Goals

Six themes for what promises to be a critical year for reflecting on progress and scaling ambition

2019 will mark four years since the United Nations (UN) member states unanimously agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and planet by 2030 – a deadline which is starting to loom ever-larger on the horizon.

As the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) we bring together a coalition of 200 of the world’s most forward thinking businesses to target the realization of the SDGs through the transformation of six key economic systems, driven by innovative business solutions.

As we continue efforts to translate the transformative ambitions of the SDG agenda into action, 2019 promises to be something of a pivotal year underpinned by a series of key developments which will have important implications for business over the next twelve months.

Here we take a look at some of the key SDG developments 2019 has in store to help you determine focus and actions, built around the following six themes:

  1. A year for taking stock of progress
  2. Business’ SDG commitments under the microscope
  3. The right tools for the job
  4. Science based targets underpinning the SDGs
  5. Which goals will be in the spotlight?
  6. Finance: the elephant in the room

1. A year for taking stock of progress

2019 marks an important juncture for evaluating SDG progress with the UN set to undertake a comprehensive review of achievements against this global agenda thus far.

July will see the convening of the now customary High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) at the United Nation Headquarters in New York, with a record number of 51 nations scheduled to deliver national SDG progress updates in the form of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). The theme of this year’s forum will be “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality” – a topic on which there is mounting global scrutiny and around which private sector input and dialogue will be essential.

These efforts will in turn pave the way for the first ever high level SDG Summit which will be held under the auspices of the UN General Assembly in September. The summit will bring heads of state together to discuss the SDGs for the first time since their launch and will seek to reinvigorate international commitment to the 2030 Agenda while showcasing progress and pervading challenges. This year’s SDG Business Forum will also be organized to coincide with the SDG Summit and will give business leaders an important platform to similarly take stock of their SDG efforts and to engage in dialogues with policy-makers on how to further scale efforts.

Ahead of the SDG Summit the UN will also be releasing a new Global Sustainable Development Report which will provide a landmark analysis of SDG progress over the course of the last four years.

In what promises to be a bumper year for stock-taking, it will be important for the private sector to assimilate the findings of these assessments and to be part of the conversation around how efforts can be enhanced. WBCSD will again be working to inject a forward-thinking business voice into proceedings and will be organizing a range of engagement opportunities around both the HLPF and the SDG Summit later this year.

2. Business’ SDG commitments under the microscope 

2019 also looks set to see mounting and more detailed scrutiny applied to corporate SDG performance. As consensus and guidance on exactly how business should be strategically integrating and reporting on the SDGs continues to mature, companies that are not demonstrating robust commitments in this space are likely to find themselves being held increasingly accountable by a range of stakeholders.

Oxfam’s Walk the Talk report published towards the end of last year points to a number of concerns regarding the level of SDG ambition that has been shown by business to date and makes a series of recommendations for enhancing meaningful SDG engagement by the private sector moving forward.

Another initiative that will be exploring corporate performance in this field in depth is the World Benchmarking Alliance. In September 2018, this multi-stakeholder initiative announced its ambition to rank a selection of 2,000 of some of the world’s largest companies through a series of benchmarks exploring private sector contributions to issues which sit at the heart of the 2030 Agenda. The first of these benchmarks will be launched in 2019, kicking off a process which could see as many as 20 separate benchmarks released over the next five years. WBCSD has been engaged in ongoing dialogues regarding the development of the World Benchmarking Alliance, and continues to inject a private sector perspective into the initiative.

3. The right tools for the job

The good news for business as we move into 2019, is that there have never been more tools and resources available to support the private sector with the meaningful integration of the SDGs into strategic considerations.

Resources such as SDSN’s SDG Index & Dashboards, the World Bank Atlas of SDGs and the SDG Tracker portal, all provide valuable and accessible insight into the key SDG challenges facing different geographies, while the SDG Industry Matrix and WBCSD’s growing library of SDG Sector Roadmaps provide inspiration on the key actions that different sectors can take to drive SDG progress. In terms of reporting, the efforts of the UN Global Compact and GRI in developing their important Analysis of the Goals and Targets and Integrating the SDGs into Corporate Reporting resources have also helped to lay out detailed and structured guidance on what constitutes robust SDG disclosure. All of these resources and others are available to explore via WBCSD’s SDG Business Hub.

 4. Science Based Targets underpinning the SDGs 

While the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets that underpin them are fixed in place until 2030, our understanding of the science that sits behind these targets continues to evolve.

2018 saw the launch of the IPCC’s special report on the impacts of 1.5 °C of global warming which helped to inject fresh urgency around climate-related SDG targets and will need to inform global efforts moving forward. Groundbreaking science and research will continue to crystalize the SDG agenda in 2019; already at this early stage in the year we have seen the publication of the EAT-Lancet report which points to clear scientific pathways towards a healthy and sustainable global food system, and the landmark report by the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work which outlines key steps needed to achieve decent and sustainable employment opportunities for all. For its part, business will need to interpret this emerging research and work to incorporate it into ongoing SDG alignment efforts and strategies.

5. Which goals will be in the spotlight?

Of course, the Sustainable Development Goals represent a highly-interconnected framework which needs to be considered holistically. Having said that however, there are several goals which look likely to come under enhanced focus during the course of 2019.

SDG 13 (Climate Action) will certainly be making headlines. Not only is it one of the SDGs that will be discussed in detail at the High-Level Political Forum 2019 (HLPF 2019) in July, but it will also be the subject of a summit specially convened by the UN Secretary General in September as he looks to mobilize political and economic energy at the highest levels in the face of mounting urgency.

SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) will be another of the goals that will be touched on at the HLPF 2019 and is already emerging as a key theme for the year with clear links to the current political climate.

Meanwhile the publication of the EAT-Lancet report and its science-based targets for a healthy and sustainable food system, as well as additional research that is continuing to emerge is energizing discussion around a number of targets under SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 12(Responsible Consumption and Production).

Finally, SDG 14 (Life Below Water) will hopefully enjoy something of a reversal in fortunes in 2019. A variety of surveys from 2018, including one conducted among WBCSD members and partners found SDG 14 to be the least prioritized SDG by business, but the emergence of a variety of multi-stakeholder platforms to tackle marine sustainability issues in recent months, including the new Alliance to End Plastic Waste of which WBCSD is one of the founding strategic partners, should serve to catalyze awareness and action.

 6. Finance: the elephant in the room

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, 2019 will see further exploration into who exactly is going to foot the SDG bill. The UN estimates that achieving the goals will require between USD $5-7 trillion of investment per year, against which there is currently a significant shortfall of some USD $2-3 trillion. Analysis suggests that at least a trillion of this will have to be mobilized from the private sector.

This is a field which represents significant opportunities for business and innovations are starting to emerge, however 2019 will be an important year in terms of helping to scale new mechanisms which can help de-risk and incentivize enhanced levels of private sector investment, particularly in fields such as sustainable infrastructure in frontier markets.

A new online portal hosted UNCTAD provides a useful overview of some of the key initiatives emerging in this space. Meanwhile the UN Secretary General will be seeking to operationalize his Strategy for Financing the 2030 Agenda which was launched in September 2018 and will be calling on a range of stakeholders including business to advance actionable outcomes ahead of a High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development held around the UN General Assembly.

So, there we have an (inexhaustive) overview of some of the key SDG trends and developments to look out for in what promises to be a busy year ahead. For more information on WBCSD’s approach visit some of our resources highlighted below:

CEO Guide to the SDGs

Our CEO Guide to the SDGs succinctly lays out the implications of the SDG agenda for the private sector while positioning clear actions that business leaders can take to begin to integrate this agenda into their organizations.

SDG Sector Roadmap Guidelines

These guidelines provide a step-by-step process for a sector to explore, articulate and realize a common vision for how their industry can contribute to the SDGs. The Chemical Sector SDG Roadmap is the first practical application of this work and companies from the forestry and cement sectors also have sector roadmaps scheduled for launch in 2019.

SDG Business Hub

This online portal captures and packages latest insight, key developments, useful tools and emerging best practice with a view to helping business to effectively navigate the dynamic SDG landscape.

SDG Compass

Developed by WBCSD in collaboration with GRI and the UN Global Compact, the SDG Compass provides guidance for companies on how they can align their strategies as well as measure and manage their contribution to the SDGs.

The Good Life Goals

In collaboration with multiple partners including Futerra and United Nations 10YFP, WBCSD contributed to the development of the Good Life Goals which highlight a series of simple actions that anyone can take towards realizing the SDGs.

Read original release here.

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