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15 Mar 2022

SDG’s Winners and Losers, part 2

Pippy Stephenson

The new report from the IPCC is a much needed call to action. It says by the end of the century 50-75% of people will be exposed to deadly heat stress, 8% of farmland will become climatically unsuitable and 183 million will go hungry by 2050. Today, less than 15% of land, 21% of freshwater and 8% of oceans are protected areas. 

Professor Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC highlighted the, "report clearly indicates that places where people live and work may cease to exist, that ecosystems and species that we've all grown up with and that are central to our cultures and inform our languages may disappear,""So this is really a key moment. Our report points out very clearly, this is the decade of action, if we are going to turn things around." In light of this, perhaps now is a good time to revisit our progress on the SDGs. 

The Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs are a set of 17 goals, laid out by the UN in 2015. Their intention is to create a more sustainable planet, environmentally, economically and socially. For more background on the SDGs see our previous article here. In this article, part 2 on the subject, we will cover goals 11, 12 and 13. These were agreed upon by all the UN member states, who have been working towards them at different speeds. So, let’s take a look at who's doing well and who’s falling behind. 

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities 

The 11th SDG is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. This goal is measured by the proportion of people living in slums, air pollution, access to an improved water source and satisfaction with public transport. The UN has predicted that 68% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, so whether this goal is met will impact a lot of us directly. 

The UN has also said that only half of the world's urban population have convenient access to public transport. According to a Harvard study, commute time is the biggest factor influencing someone's ability to escape poverty. A New York Times article on the subject says, “The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.” The infrastructure around us plays a tangible role in what opportunities are available to us and determines the course of our lives. In his documentary The Future of Cities, Oscar Boyson says, “When walking, cycling and public transportation are the fastest ways to move, nobody feels like a second class citizen for not owning a car.” Offering a wide range of transport options also eases congestion.

In 1970s Amsterdam, cars were filling up the streets and making it dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. In the oil crisis, car free Sundays were introduced. Cycling took off and protesters demanded that the city become low-car and people-friendly. The council agreed. Although cars have not been banned from the city, many of the roads have been designed to be friendly to cyclists and to slow down cars. In the long-run this has made Amsterdam a safer, healthier and more sustainable city, as a bike contributes 1/65,000ths of the damage to the road than the average car. The Netherlands is on track to meet SDG11 with challenges remaining with air pollution. Overall the Dutch have a very good SDG score of 81.6 and rank 11th.

Copenhagen plans on being the world's first carbon neutral capital city by 2025. In the last ten years the city has invested nearly 300 million dollars into cycling infrastructure and put high taxes on motorised vehicles. The city heats 99% of its houses using leftover heat from electricity production. It also has a power plant that converts waste to clean energy and has a ski slope on the roof. Denmark is ranked 3rd on the index however they still face some problems with SDG11. These challenges are a stagnating level of satisfaction with public transport and an increasingly high cost of living, with housing costs often making up more than 40% of disposable income. 

In 2021, the UN reported that there are more than 1 billion slum dwellers in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia combined. The UN defines a slum household as “a group of individuals living under the same roof lacking one or more of the following conditions: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, housing durability, and security of tenure”. 

India is ranked 120th on the index. The country is specifically facing difficulties related to SDG11, due to severe air pollution, a high number of people living in slums and access to clean, piped water at 67% and decreasing. 

We need to work at getting clean water to all the people that don’t already have access to it. SkySource might have a solution. They use solar power to turn air into water. They suggest that using their technology one day every building could create its own water. Hopefully, in the future, this could be implemented all across the world and create a low-cost, energy efficient way for everyone to have access to clean water. 

SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production 

The 12th SDG is to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.” The UN has reported that the global “material footprint” increased by 70% between 2000 and 2017. 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, 5 trillion single use plastic bags are thrown away each year. And each person generated 7.3 kilograms of e-waste in 2019. 

In recent years, products like cars, TV’s and lightbulbs, have become more energy efficient which you would imagine would mean we’d have a lower material footprint. However, as things have become more energy efficient, they’ve also become more affordable and accessible, which in turn means more consumption and more waste. This is called the Rebound Effect and shows that major strides in production can be outweighed by setbacks in consumption. Consumption and production are not independent. 

This combined with the prevalence of planned and perceived obsolescence (designing things to go quickly out of date, either in practical functioning or due to social pressure) means that we are heading in the absolute wrong direction. 

We need to rethink consumption. On a personal level, we need to consider what we really need to buy and consider where it will go when we throw it away, as 90% of donated clothes end up in landfills. Manufacturers need to make things out of materials that can be easily recycled and stop designing them to be thrown away. As well as using manufacturing processes with as little waste and emissions as possible. 

America faces serious challenges in this area. In 2019 the country produced 21kg of e-waste per capita. And in 2012 they emitted 51kg of production-based SO2 per capita and 11.3kg of SO2 embodied in imports per capita. But it’s not just America that isn't doing well in this area, no European country is on track to meeting the goal either. Finland, who are ranked 1st overall on the SDG index, still face major challenges with their consumption and production too. 

Many countries with high poverty rates do well with SDG12. Nigeria, who is ranked 160 out of the 165 countries on the index and who faces major or significant challenges in all but 2 of the 17 SDGs, has achieved SDG12 and SDG13: Climate Action. It’s a similar situation in Morocco, Myanmar and Guatemala among others. It’s clear that wealthier countries consume more and therefore pollute more. We need to find a sustainable way of providing people with healthy and comfortable lives. 

SDG 13: Climate Action 

The UN has said we’re “woefully off track to stay at or below 1.5°C called for in the Paris Agreement”. We need to be shifting our economies towards carbon neutrality and developing detailed plans to ensure food security and production, protect our ecosystems, freshwater resources, human health and our economic sectors and services. We need to adapt fast. According to the UN, 125 of 145 developing countries are formulating National Climate Adaptation Plans. As much as we globally recognise the fact of climate change, we are not instilled with enough urgency for proper climate action. 

In the UK we’re very far behind on this goal and have been categorised as “moderately improving”. We emitted 282.6kg CO2 emissions per capita related to fossil fuel exports in 2020. We’ve almost halved this since 2000 but we still have a lot of work left to do. 

On the specific metric of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production, America has consistently been the highest emitter for the last 20 years, followed by Russia, China and Mexico. America has also consistently led on CO₂ emissions embodied in imports since 2000, with a score consistently around four times higher than the next highest emitter, Mexico. 

Most of Africa, South America and South Asia are on track to meet SDG13, whilst almost all of the northern hemisphere is making slow progress. Countries you’d expect to do well in this area like Holland, Denmark and Sweden have high levels of emissions from imports and fossil fuel and cement production. However, a lot of Europe, including Holland, Denmark and Sweden have achieved the goal related to fossil fuel export emissions. Of course, much of this is coincidental as many countries have no fossil fuels at all. 

In 2020, Ghana began the process of developing a National Adaptation Plan (NAP). Professor Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Minister for Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation, said, “It is imperative for the developing world to plan their development with climate change in mind”. He added that COVID-19 had been “a wake-up call to us as Ghanaians on self-sufficiency”

It’s not just the developing world that should think this way, every country needs to aim for self-sufficiency. Switching over to wind and solar removes the need to extract or import fossil fuels which is incredibly polluting not just in the production and consumption but also in transportation. We’re also learning from the current situation with Russian oil and gas that relying on other countries for fossil fuels has a political and economic impact as well as an environmental one. 

Conclusion 

The SDG Index is a really helpful tool that can give credit where it’s due whilst also holding countries to account. It can be surprising to see how countries compare, but we must remember not to treat it as a competition. We all need to work collaboratively for the greater good. We should look to countries that are implementing effective changes for inspiration and guidance to do the same. 

Reset Connect London, 28-29 June 2022, will be all about collaboration. The event will bring together innovators, start-ups and industry leaders to share ideas to transition to a green economy, make our cities sustainable and reform the supply chain. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can help us achieve the SDGs, buy a ticket

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