Can the U.N. actually do anything to make the world more sustainable?

Greta Thunberg (R), a 16-years-old climate activist from Sweden, addresses world leaders at the star...
ByTebany Yune
Originally Published: 

This week in New York, at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, António Guterres took to the podium to launch the opening of the conference. He addressed the audience of world leaders and representatives from private corporations with an urgent message that demanded action. "This is not a climate negotiation summit," said the U.N. Secretary-General. "You don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit."

Actions, not empty promises, quickly became the theme for this year's conference. The U.N. has recognized that the changing climate has already disrupted the local economy in some countries. Furious storms and extreme temperatures are no longer uncommon. The availability of jobs, food supply, and quality of life for many people living in vulnerable areas has prompted human migration to other countries with more perceived opportunities. Students and youth protesters around the world are fighting back against the idea of inheriting a broken Earth that could possibly take two generations (them and their children) to fix. The push for cleaner and sustainable communities is now more important than ever.

In 2015, to encourage sustainability, the U.N. ratified 17 sustainable development goals with the intent to promote education and equality, enhance quality of life among citizens, slow the effects of climate change, protect citizens from the impact of global warming, and stabilize economies. The goals, varied as they may seem, are all intertwined to create a more resilient humankind that can both care for the Earth and support each other's communities during disasters.

The U.N. believes these goals should be met by 2030, and that nations need concrete plans in place for sustainability by 2020.

Ensuring the basic needs of the people

The first three sustainable development goals require eliminating extreme poverty, ensuring no one goes hungry, and promoting good health and well-being in communities.

At our current rate, the U.N. estimates there will be two billion people worldwide that will go undernourished by 2050. Currently, 10 percent of the world still lives in extreme poverty and at least half the world still lacks access to essential health services. Without these basic needs fulfilled, global leaders will be unable to accomplish any other sustainability goals — struggling households will be too busy trying to survive to think about anything else.

Ending these problems may sound impossible, but the U.N. believes it's more achievable than we think. The organization cited economist Jeffrey Sachs, who estimated the cost of ending extreme poverty within the next 20 years at around $175 billion. According to the U.N., this amount "represents less than one percent of the combined income of the richest countries in the world." The U.N. also urges both government and private businesses to create more growth opportunities specifically for marginalized groups, and for citizens to vote for officials who will put such policies in place. Encouraging neighbors to keep up with vaccinations and healthy practices could also prevent people from suffering a financial blow due to sudden health emergencies.

Education, equality, and sanitation


The next three goals address the human right to quality education, gender equality, and clean water. The U.N. stated that education is a necessary building block to helping people understand how to live sustainable lives. In the same vein, providing education and safety to women and girls — there are 49 countries that still lack laws protecting women from domestic abuse — is also needed to ensure the other half of the population can contribute to a nation's productivity while making healthy decisions for themselves and others. It's an economically wise decision as well; the U.N. noted that "investing in education programmes for girls and increasing the age at which they marry can return $5 for every dollar spent."

Providing clean water and sanitation to communities can also save on costs. The health, environmental, and economic cost of water scarcity can greatly impact a country. According to the U.N., three out of ten people have no access to safe drinking water and three billion people don't have basic sanitation services such as toilets. This means that more than 80 percent of wastewater from humans is going into rivers and oceans — without any wastewater treatment, it ends up polluting the environment. "Without better infrastructure and management," reported the U.N., "millions of people will continue to die every year and there will be further losses in biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, undermining prosperity and efforts towards a more sustainable future."

Clean energy, economic growth, and industry

The next part of the U.N.'s sustainable development goals relies on the help of technology and innovation for affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; and industry, innovation, and infrastructure. By switching over to clean energy, nations can reduce the amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere. This lessens the damage on the ozone layer, preventing the speedy acceleration of global warming and extreme weather patterns.

To further protect communities against climate hazards requires economic growth for everyone. Nations also need to regulate and support industries that are accessible to all kinds of people, non-discriminatory, innovative, and resilient. Industry and growth are interconnected; a strong industry can provide work opportunities for families to pull themselves out of poverty. A family that doesn't have to worry about poverty can help stabilize a community. They could also have access to a wider range of options to make healthy purchasing decisions, and are more able to commit to a standard of living that supports the environment.

Inequality, sustainability, and consumption

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"[W]e cannot achieve sustainable development and make the planet better for all if people are excluded from opportunities, services, and the chance for a better life," wrote the U.N.. With that in mind, the next goals call for reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, and responsible consumption and production. Intolerance and inequality effects everyone — young or old, rich or poor — and disrupts community efforts to invest in a healthier society.

The U.N. also recommends global leaders create sustainable cities that are inclusive and safe for everyone. Budgeting to improve buildings and create energy-efficient solutions to urban issues is also important. "Cities occupy just 3 percent of the Earth’s land," the organization reported, "but account for 60-80 percent of energy consumption and 70 percent of carbon emissions."

People should also keep sustainability in mind when consuming or producing products, suggested the U.N.. This requires changes in our behavior; choosing items that can be recycled, reducing the amount of waste we produce, and being informed about the items we purchase. "For example," said the U.N., "the textile industry today is the second largest polluter of clean water after agriculture, and many fashion companies exploit textile workers in the developing world." By changing our consumption habits, we can change how businesses operate as well.

Caring for the Earth

The next goals directly address how we care for the Earth. Nations should have climate action plans to address climate change, keep the oceans clean, and take steps to protect the environment. Rising temperatures, as we're familiar with by now, have already produced devastating storms and weather, threatened food supplies and water sources, and harm vulnerable groups like children and the elderly. The U.N. relies on countries to follow the Paris Agreement to protect their citizens, which is a promise made by participating nations to address climate change.

Protecting the oceans and lands not only helps the Earth manage its carbon levels, but also supplies communities that rely on the local ecosystem for food or work. Governments need to create and enforce regulations that will protect these areas and encourage activities such as reforestation and beach cleanups. The U.N. also asks consumers to refrain from over-consuming food, to reduce demand, and be respectful of local ecosystems.

Building strong communities for the future

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In order to create strong communities that can support each other, rebuild during disasters, and take care of the local environment, governments have to promote peaceful and just societies. This means there should be an effort to combat corruption, include marginalized groups, and reduce violence within communities. The U.N. warns that violence and injustice can weaken even the strongest nations, and that it's necessary to promote peace for sustainable development. Citizens need to take part in politics and voting to ensure their voices are being heard, raise awareness of issues, and promote inclusion of others.

Finally, the last goal is called 'partnerships.' Essentially, each community is part of the overall global community. The U.N. believes that, as a whole, our nations need to work together to make these sustainable development goals work.

A word is just a word

On paper, these are all fantastic goals. But unless there's actual, real action from each nation, these are just that: goals written down on paper. The U.N. can still only rely on the promises of each nation — and there are plenty. Before this week, France had already declared they will not make trade agreements with countries "whose policies run counter to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement." In May, Germany promised to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. During this year's conference, China said they will "cut emissions by over 12 billion tons annually." Other nations pledged to stop relying solely on fossil fuels and phase out coal.

But there are plenty of critics who believe these politicians are doing nothing but throwing empty speeches in the faces of concerned citizens. The U.N. has attempted to 'punish' countries without an actionable climate plan — about 50 out of the 100 that applied to speak at the conference — by disallowing them from taking the stage in New York. But even those who attended seemed only somewhat dedicated at best.

"So many delegates were taking selfies or chatting on the floor of the General Assembly that organizers had to run two separate countdowns urging them to return to their seats," wrote a reporter for Vice, who attended the conference. The reporter was seated next to an Italian journalist who commented on the lack of seriousness in the audience.

"World leaders and they don't even know how to sit down," said the Italian. "Jesus, this is a shit show."

For people like Greta Thunberg and the other youth protesters around the world, it's a sign that there's still more work to be done. It's up to the citizens to continue putting pressure on government officials and corporations to follow the U.N.'s sustainability goals for a brighter future.