Over the past two weeks, governments and leaders from the private sector and civil society offered a number of learnings, challenges, and recommendations at the High-level Political Forum (HLPF), the annual gathering place at the United Nations to measure and discuss progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

They did so in the hopes of better understanding – and finding ways to increase – current rates of progress toward the global goals. The forum highlighted a number of key takeaways; now the question is: How do we translate these into lasting impact for people and the planet?

Here are four areas to watch moving forward:

1. Now that SDG progress is coming into focus, we’re seeing what’s truly at stake: The HLPF provided the opportunity to highlight the world’s progress, and it also showed that current efforts are not producing fast enough change. The stakes are high: no country is on track to achieve all the SDGs and a small number of countries are home to concentrated pockets of individuals who are being left behind.

This is becoming a less abstract concept, as recent analysis looking at current progress and future trajectories shows that hundreds of millions of people’s basic needs are at risk: for nearly 40 million people, it is literally a life or death situation. Gender equality and violence against women affect huge swaths of the globe, and billions (that’s right, billions) of people suffer from poor air quality. On climate alone, the World Bank estimates that without strong climate action, 100 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030 – a devastating increase from the current level of over 4 million annual deaths from air pollution.

Some indictors are even moving in the wrong direction. After years of decline, world hunger is on the rise. And an increase in the number of conflicts throughout the world has also eroded development gains in conflict-affected countries. To accelerate SDG progress, we must get serious about understanding how close or how far we are from each goal.

2.The connections between the well-being of people and planet need more attention: As we heard throughout the HLPF, our environmental and development agendas are connected and progress on one depends on the other.

This year’s HLPF focused on reviewing several of the environmental SDGs. We must do more to promote development that is sustainable, protects the environment, and promotes economic growth. For example, we need to accelerate action on sanitation, land conservation, ocean protection, and access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.

This year we heard many countries discussing how to manage trade-offs and use technology and innovation to ensure that development does not come at the expense of the environment, but also elevates the rest of the SDGs. Recent research by the World Bank shows increasing access to energy (Goal 7) and to improved water sources (Goal 6) is highly linked to progress on other SDGs.

At the Forum, we also heard several reports on progress on clean energy. Jamaica’s Voluntary National Review highlighted the case study of the Wigton Windfarm, which contributes to the diversification of the country’s energy mix and provides local employment and learning opportunities. The UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs reported that the number of people without electricity globally has dipped below the “symbolic threshold” of 1 billion.

The upcoming Global Climate Action Summit in September, the annual UN climate conference in December, and a special climate conference hosted by the Secretary-General in 2019 will be important moments to push for greater action and integrated, cross-sector commitments and solutions.

3.The global goals come alive in local action: In an increasingly urban world – with 6 billion people expected to live in urban areas by 2050 – cities and local communities are on the frontlines of the SDGs. To achieve sustainable and equitable development globally, we must focus as much on local-level action as on national-level action.

We are seeing sparks of progress on this front – from New York City submitting the first-ever “Voluntary Local Review” on SDG progress at the city level, to Bristol sharing best practices for SDG implementation, to the mayors of Montreal, Berlin, Montevideo, and Barcelona discussing how cities can work together to drive more sustainable and inclusive growth, to the first UN hosted Local and Regional Governments’ Forum, which brought cities and regional governments together at the HLPF.

There was even a full day event on Local Action for Global Commitment, in which hubs across the world, such as the Electric Mobility Hub, Parana hub in Brazil and the Colombia hub, convened networks of municipalities and local communities in support of the SDGs. And the UN Global Compact launched a report on how to accelerate SDG implementation including at the local level. Overall, the HLPF made clear that progress on the SDGs will only be possible with increased momentum at the local level.

Moving forward, we hope we continue to see increases in local action, leadership, and excitement about how local actors (from governments, citizens, private sector groups, and community foundations) are working together toward the SDGs.

4.The private sector is engaged and ready to step up ambition: The past year has seen a surge of private sector engagement on the SDGs, and the commitment of the private sector was palpable throughout the HLPF.

The third SDG Business Forum convened CEOs and high-level representatives from the business community to discuss positive examples of SDG alignment and action by the private sector. These included innovative efforts to accelerate greater adoption of circular economy principles in manufacturing and production, creating free economic zones aligned with the SDGs in Africa, and utilizing mobile technology to drive inclusive economic growth for vulnerable populations. The private sector was also prominently featured during other key moments of the HLPF, including country-level presentations on SDG progress.

Despite this momentum, the SDG financing gap was a major topic of conversation throughout the HLPF. The UN Deputy Secretary-General urged greater cooperation between governments and the private sector to mobilize capital and deploy the resources at the scale necessary to deliver the SDGs by 2030, and previewed the importance of the Secretary-General’s planned High-Level Meeting on SDG Financing in September to continue to drive ambition and action. Moreover, we must keep thinking creatively about how to engage the private sector in conversations beyond just financing to discuss broadly how it can help deliver the SDGs.


Where To Next? Innovations and Action

Although we heard many stories of progress from the 47 countries reporting on their VNRs, the private sector, civil society, mayors, and youth voices, there is also a growing feeling that, three years into the agenda, it is now time to drive implementation further and faster.

To do so will entail working within and across sectors and in new ways. It will entail thinking about the linkages between development, security, and human rights and working across siloes that continue to divide actors. It also requires having the data in place to understand where we are and what decisions are needed to help move us in the right direction. The launch of the Inclusive Data Charter was an important moment to double down on the importance of data in ensuring that policymaking considers the needs of everyone, including marginalized people and the extreme poor.

Accelerating progress also means being brave enough to take risks in an effort to shake up business as usual. A new book published this week on the SDGs hits the nail on the head, stating that SDG progress will entail innovations in approach (from the need to measure business impact on the SDGs to the use of green bonds), in being specific about where to target places needing attention (from specific pockets within countries to rural areas to our beloved oceans), and in our cooperation and governance efforts.

We must act quickly. 2019 will be a seminal moment for the SDGs, as the world’s leaders come together to assess progress and reaffirm our shared commitment to achieve the SDGs. With our timeline to 2030 just 12 years away, let’s work to ensure that we are partnering in ambitious and innovative ways to deliver progress for people and the planet.