GUILLAUME LAFORTUNE, Director Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Paris
Solidarity and partnerships are critical to address and prevent health, economic, and humanitarian crises. Through its intensive programs conducted worldwide, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) develops concerted international action to accelerate the identification of solutions to the immediate crisis and strengthen globalization for the long-term.
Guillaume Lafortune, the Director of the Paris Office of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), shared fresh insights, relevant data and information on their upcoming projects, all these with a focus on achieving the SDGs. Together with other lead writers, such as Jeffrey D. Sachs or Christian Kroll, he supervises the production of the Sustainable Development Report. Previously, he served as an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) working on public governance reforms and statistics.
1.The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (unsdsn.org) promotes integrated approaches to implement the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, through education, research, policy analysis, and global cooperation. What exciting plans do you have for the upcoming years? Can you share with our readers more information on the SDG Academy?
The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was set up in 2012 under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General. We have three streams of work, but the main role of SDSN is to be “a knowledge broker” between science and decision-makers to identify solutions for sustainable development. We are a network of universities and research centers, and through our activities developed with local partners, we support and promote the implementation of the SDGs worldwide. We have more than 1500 partner institutions around the world. We also conduct our own research and lead international initiatives on metrics, data, and learning systems.
The SDG Academy (sdgacademy.org) is our training platform where we create and curate free massive open online courses and educational materials on sustainable development and the SDGs. We provide access to free learning materials for students, the private sector, the civil society, NGOs, and policy makers. It is open for everyone and also includes degrees one can take, so people can actually get various diplomas after taking our classes. We have 32 courses, 6000 enrollments from more than 190 countries, and this is what I consider to be the greatest strength of digital: it opens up learning opportunities for the entire world.
One of the new things the SDG Academy is doing is “The Book Club with Jeffrey Sachs”, a series of monthly live conversations with renowned authors on the most relevant topics for humanity. We plan to continue the development of new courses on topics that have not been covered yet and to increase the enrollment and participation to fresh audiences. We are trying to obtain more visibility and to attract a larger public because the quality of the courses is great, and the professors / the speakers are professionals who have senior levels at the UN or who are top scientists on climate issues.
2.Are EU countries on track to achieve all 17 SDGs by 2030?
In December 2020, we published the “European Sustainable Development Report”. Based on the results, we can say there has been major progress overall. Through the research conducted at SDG Index (sdgindex.org), we try to identify priorities for action, to understand key implementation challenges, while tracking progress, ensuring accountability and identifying gaps that must be closed in order to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Despite progress on the SDGs in the EU before the pandemic hit, no EU country was on track for achieving all of the 17 SDGs. More exactly, even the top performers right now (the Nordic countries – Finland, Denmark, and Sweden) are off track for achieving the SDGs. For the vast majority of countries, this situation is related to poor performance on SDGs 12-15 (related to responsible production and consumption, climate and biodiversity) and major issues related to SDG-2 as well (Zero Hunger).
The title of this SDG is a little bit misleading because it comprises the issue of undernourishment, but also relates to the one around malnourishment (unsustainable diets, obesity), but also captures unsustainable agriculture as well. If we look from a global perspective, Europe performs well when it comes to socio-economic goals (SDGs 1-10), but there are still problems related to learning outcomes and equity among students, for example. The socio-economic background is still an important predictor of performance at school in many EU countries. These are the main challenges we see for EU countries.
The good news is related to the European Green Deal which sets the right level of ambition, the right path and the proper vision. The question that arises now is “how are we going to implement this in a coordinated way across Europe?”
I recommend your readers to check the Country Profile section of SDG Index and see how Romania is progressing. ”In your country, compared with other EU countries, there are still major SDG challenges: there are issues on the socio-economic side related to poverty, education, or gender equality as well. Romania is moving in the right direction, but starting from a lower point compared to the European standards.
3.You recently launched the “World Happiness Report”. Which are the key findings? How can we redefine happiness in 2021?
This report was very unusual because the data we use comes from a global survey conducted every year by Gallup, where they ask people: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how are you feeling?” They aggregate this at a national level and come up with the ranking of the happiest countries. This year’s report was difficult to create because face-to-face interviews were impossible due to the lockdown and the responses were influenced somehow by the COVID-19 impact.
The clear evidence is that the pandemic has affected mental health, at a global level. It is not known yet what type of long term effects will be, but there is a significant increase in anxiety and depression. The Nordic countries are still on top of the happiest countries.
A key finding that I found interesting is that when you look at the countries that have progress regarding the SDGs and those that do rank first in the happiness report, you can easily observe a correlation. There might be a link between sustainable development and the social democracies models that favor wellbeing, social protection or health in all its forms.
4.Which do you consider to be the top three SDGs affected by the pandemic?
This is a very good question. For sure, I would say SDG-3 (health issues – not only due to COVID-19 but also because of the increase in mental illness issues), SDG-1 (poverty issues), SDG-4 (education issues). Some of the countries that managed to handle the pandemic better were those where social protection was a norm because people could easily accept the concept of a lockdown.
I want to discuss a situation that I found very surprising: when the pandemic hit, there appeared some mass-media materials that were criticizing the SDGs with factually wrong arguments, such as the one that the SDGs did not cover a potential pandemic. But, if you take a look at SDG-3, there is a point saying that countries should strengthen their preparedness in terms of global health security (written in 2015). Maybe if the SDGs had been implemented sooner, most countries would have been able to react better to this pandemic. Another argument was that, due to the pandemic, we will not achieve the SDGs by 2030, so we should rethink those goals and refocus on more specific targets and objectives.
I think we have to understand that it is the first time in human history when all leaders of the UN adopted a common set of goals and objectives. For Europe, some of these ideas of democracy, good governance, social protection, universal health coverage and others come very naturally, but this is not the case for all parts of the world. This is why having this common set of goals is a real achievement in our human history. Responding to criticism was very important to us because it is not the time to scale back ambition. On the contrary, it is the ideal time to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.
I haven’t seen any type of scientific proof that achieving the SDGs by 2030 is impossible. Technically, achieving the SDGs by 2030 is possible. Financially, there are no barriers. It is just a matter of political willingness and leadership. The role of the science community is to push governments to act more and to transform this post-pandemic recovery phase into one aligned to the SDGs.
5.The climate scientific community has been very successful in making their work known and recognized, but not all scientific communities have been so fortunate. Can you offer us an example of such a community that needs better visibility?
The one that comes to my mind is the biodiversity community. Bees pollinate 70% of the world’s total flowering plant species, so the majority of the food we consume basically depends on “the bees doing their work”. More specifically, for 70% of our food, we depend on nature-based solutions. Many people believe that nature can be replaced by technology (e.g. drones) and hope to substitute what nature is currently providing to us humans for free. But this replacement can be much more costly than simply saving the bees, for example.
The context is greater than losing our dear animals if we do not take into consideration the situation from a holistic approach. In time, we will end up being in a very difficult position in terms of food supplies. The evidence is there, the science is there.
”Deforestation and biodiversity threats caused by unsustainable supply chains increase the likelihood of future pandemics. The emergence of some new pathogens can be connected to the fact that animals do not have safe places to live anymore and might end up being more in contact with humans, which will increase the appearance of other pandemics. Hopefully, this COVID-19 crisis can act as a wake-up call, can help solve some of these issues and accelerate action.
6.What are your thoughts on the Chinese pledge to go carbon neutral by 2060? Is it feasible?
It is a remarkable achievement from an international perspective and we should commend China for taking such a bold commitment. Yet, it is a bit unfortunate the target is set to 2060 and not 2050.
A thing to be proud of, as Europeans, is that Europe was the first continent to adapt this climate pledge to be neutral by 2050 through the European Green Deal. This is what afterwards inspired other governments around the world to do the same: China, Japan, US. It is very good news to see this type of commitment, but it will require massive investment, policy reforms and a strong political will.
There’s a saying: the good news is that everything depends on China, and the bad news is that everything depends on China. If China manages to achieve it, taking into consideration the size of its population, we should all have high hopes when it comes to climate neutrality. The pandemic has proved that when the Chinese government sets itself a goal, it can mobilize very rapidly huge amounts of resources and energy around that objective.
The interview was initially published in November 2021, in the bilingual yearbook Community Index Magazine no. 3, printed edition. It can be ordered here: https://communityindex.ro/community-index-magazine-2021/