ImpactAlpha, July 12 –– In some alternative universe, the U.S. president is right now hectoring our allies to accelerate and increase their commitments to meeting the 2030 deadline for global goals around poverty, health and climate.
Such public and private investments, that parallel president tells fellow leaders, have returned multiple benefits, including rising life expectancies, reduced losses from extreme weather and falling levels of forced migration around the world.
Our metaverse Madam President is on a roll. The U.S. has of course taken the lead to meet the goals agreed upon by all nations. But there’s plenty of prosperity to go around. With 12 years to go, now’s the time for Europe and Canada, China and India, to match the U.S. commitment. Together, the world can beat the deadlines for the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals…
Screech. Halt. Reset.
Back here in our universe, global summits have lately followed a different script.
But as it happens, at the same time as the NATO meetings and the summit of presidents Trump and Putin, the United Nations in New York is undertaking a high-level review of progress toward those very same global goals. If the effort seems slightly anachronistic, that’s only a measure of how far our aspirations have fallen since 2015, when 193 countries ratified the goals and nearly as many signed the Paris climate agreement.
Dubbed in UN-speak as the “High-Level Political Forum,” and running from July 9-18, nearly four dozen countries will submit themselves to voluntary reviews on a half-dozen of the 17 goals, including No. 6 (clean water and sanitation) and No. 12 (sustainable consumption and production).
To get a fix on how we’re doing, I caught up with the economist Jeff Sachs, the Columbia University professor who serves as a special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for the SDGs. Sachs is a veteran of the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals, which likewise had a slow start but are now considered a signal success and on which the SDGs are built. Sachs is an author of this year’s SDG index and dashboard titled, appropriately, “Global Responsibilities,” and issued by Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Sachs tried gamely to accentuate the positive, such as the progress of northern European countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which top the rankings across the three pillars of economic growth, social fairness and environmental sustainability. Those countries are both rich and equal and even, relatively speaking, green. Ranked last among the 156 countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic.
The U.S. ranked 35th, above Ukraine and Serbia, but below Bulgaria, Poland and Moldova. “That’s really accurate,” Sachs said, reflecting high scores on economic growth, but poor performance in social and environmental dimensions. “The index is capturing something quite real and accurate,” he said, “the imbalances in how our economy runs right now.”
To be fair, the 2016 data captures Obama-era performance. Those economic imbalances have been growing for some time, dating to the 1980s or even 70s. More up-to-date is another index that scores governments on their levels of commitment and support to the goals. That’s where the U.S. ranks by far at the bottom of the G-20 barrel. “There is one country in the G20 that just doesn’t care and that’s us,” Sachs said. “The other is Russia.”
Invisibility has its advantages. Unlike the Paris climate agreement, NAFTA and other trade agreements and even NATO, Trump has not attacked the SDGs. “It’s better that he not know that they exist, because he’d attack them,” Sachs said. “He just hasn’t found his angle.”
Sachs’ barely concealed fury is borne of the immense frustration of seeing so clearly the path not taken. Sachs acknowledges that the current political fixation makes it hard to even formulate a way forward. “We are in a complete dizzy spell,” Sachs says.
“It’s not only how we treat the rest of the world. We’re treating our own society miserably now,” he says. Average life expectancy in the U.S. is behind other advanced countries, and has fallen for two years running. Obesity and income inequality are soaring. America scores poorly on indicators such as decent job opportunities, paid family leave and other things that are routine in countries at the top of the list. “We don’t even try at the moment,” he said.
Sachs thinks the SDGs could enjoy popular political support in the U.S., even if few voters have yet to hear, much less care about them. Sachs says focus groups and polling shows support across the political spectrum for setting goals like the SDGs and holding ourselves accountable. It resonates with Americans’ need to stand for something, aim for something, get something done.
Around about 2020, say, some political leader may want to stand up to galvanize that kind of commitment. Achieving the global goals will require the deep transformation of education, healthcare, energy, land use and urban planning at home and abroad –– prime opportunities for American entrepreneurship and ingenuity. Decade-long goals could set off a race to the top, as did President Kennedy’s call for a moon landing, or the human genome project.
Another way to light a fire may be to say: that future is coming and let’s not miss that train. “Will we be driving around in Chinese electric vehicles and using China’s smart-grid technology? Yes. They’re the ones making these investments.”
Though it’s ranked only 54th on SDG performance, China is above the median in support and commitment for the 2030 goals as part of its Made in China 2025 initiative. “This is about China doing smart, normal, good stuff, saying ‘These are the technologies of the future and we want to lead on them. Do we think $200 billion of tariffs is going to stop the future from happening?”
Sachs doubts that private capital can cover the needed investment in science, technology, low-carbon energy, environmental regeneration and education, not to mention a strengthened social safety net for workers who need a boost on top of their stagnant take-home pay. The countries making the most progress toward the SDGs, Sachs says, are taxing themselves to pay for both social services and public investments.
Sweden may indeed be in a parallel universe. That global goals and higher taxes don’t yet feel like the planks of a winning U.S. political platform just shows how much work remains to be done in our own.
This is the latest column in David Bank’s weekly series, The Impact Alpha. Catch up on all of David’s columns here.