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Published on January 17, 2020

5 Global Issues to Watch in 2020


This article originally appeared at unfoundation.org on January 8, 2020.

With 2019 behind us, 2020 is already testing how we work together to address critical challenges at home and across borders. Support for international cooperation hangs in the balance at precisely the moment when robust collaboration is needed most. From promoting climate change and sustainability, to averting conflict within and between nations, to confronting the systemic forces that create unequal societies, in 2020 we must answer the question: How resolved are we to confront the challenges and embrace the opportunities ahead, and what is needed to do so?

 

1. Climate action accelerated?

The numbers are in: The past decade has been the warmest in recorded history. Deadly wildfires including those affecting Australia, hurricanes, extreme weather events, and climate-influenced migration and hunger in many parts of the world are now regular occurrences. Ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and the very survival of island nations is being threatened. Indeed, our entire ecosystem is at risk: 1 million animal and plant species may be extinct within years, the largest-scale ecological loss humans have seen. And a mounting global movement of youth impatient for change is pushing climate protection into the global consciousness like never before.

We have a decade to significantly curb carbon emissions and avoid catastrophe. Because of years of delayed action, we face an even more pressing mandate. We need to halve global emissions by 2030 but the emissions gap between what is needed and our current commitments is significant. Starting this year, we need to cut emissions by 7.6% every year for the next 10 years to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

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The UN’s Climate Action Summit last year set a roadmap for action and the UN Secretary-General continues to serve as a moral compass, pushing countries and other actors to do more, now: “If we do not change course by 2020 we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.” And the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid (COP26) did not send a strong signal of positive intent.

In 2020 we must decarbonize large swaths of the economy, shift financial flows, protect ecosystems, and adapt for the future. Countries are all expected to reduce more emissions under the Paris Agreement. The 2020 Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, UK, will enable the global community to take stock of which nations stepped up and by how much. Yet the countries who have so far pledged to cut carbon outputs at the highest rates represent under 10% of those producing global emissions. At current rates, that means that temperatures will rise more than 3 degrees this century.

We need all countries, and especially leading economies, to sign off this year on bolder commitments and actions.

This also means generating robust international agreement on biodiversity at the UN Biodiversity Conference in October 2020. Such an agreement must protect and preserve our natural environment, support individual actions, and encourage strong and diverse leadership from the private sector, regional governments and bodies, and civil society organizations. It also means focusing on the social dimensions of climate change, including gender and health.

There is good news to be had, which we can hope will deepen in 2020: Individuals, including the younger generation and tomorrow’s leaders, are taking to the streets to push for climate action like never before. Public opinion is shifting. And leadership is growing in cities and boardrooms alike. For example, a bipartisan coalition of 25 U.S. state governors plus Puerto Rico, known as the U.S. Climate Alliance, will reduce their states’ and territories’ emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Together this represents more than half of U.S. GDP and over half its population. In the private sector, 177 companies have agreed to reduce emissions to levels required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. And the European Commission, the world’s largest economic bloc, announced a European Green Deal to drive greater action.

But with the United States expected to officially withdraw from the Paris accord on November 4th, and next steps for climate leadership uncertain, there is no guarantee that the world will mobilize around this global crisis. Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in December 2019, said it best: “The biggest danger is not inaction. The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like the real action is happening, when in fact almost nothing is being done.”

 

2. A decade to deliver on the SDGs

The start of 2020 ushers in the ten-year countdown to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is a crucial year for ensuring our policies, financing, and ambition align to reach the Goals by 2030. The first four years since the Goals’ launch witnessed new commitments, coalitions, and approaches among national governments from the developed and developing world, local actors and leaders, the investment community and private sector, and other non-state actors. For its part, the United Nations embarked on a major reform effort to better deliver on the SDGs. The relationship between climate, the SDGs, and peace has also come into greater focus.

We now have a clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities to realize a more sustainable and prosperous world within the next decade.

To be sure, the world has made substantial strides: The extreme poverty rate has fallen below 8%, the lowest recorded level in human history. For the first time since the start of the SDGs, the number of people in extreme poverty in Africa is decreasing. India, once a global hot spot for poverty, is now on track to end extreme poverty. Children around the world are living longer and healthier lives. The mortality rate in children under five has nearly halved over the last twenty years and more children than ever are receiving an education, getting necessary vaccinations, and drinking clean water. More people have access to electricity and nearly three-quarters of the world has essential health services.

Extreme Power

Despite these bright spots the world is off track to realize the global goals by the end of this coming decade. On today’s trajectory, nearly half a billion people will still live in extreme poverty in 2030: 589 million today compared with 479 million in ten years. The overwhelming majority of those will be in Africa, affected by a warming planet and unstable societies.

Global issues

We will also see challenges in specific pockets in middle income countries and growing economies. And that is just the data we know. Poverty data for most of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, comes from information gathered before the creation of the SDGs five years ago: a reminder that we urgently need more and better data if we are even to know for sure how we are doing, and what policies are working.

If we do not make greater headway on the SDGs, we risk breaking our pledge to leave no one behind.

Recognizing the potentially widening gap between ambition and reality in the years ahead, the Secretary-General has issued a global call for a decade of action to deliver the SDGs by 2030. This includes an annual gathering alongside the UN General Assembly to evaluate progress and retarget political will. And supporting the Decade of Action campaign will help spark meaningful commitments around climate, gender, and inequality.

And at the High-Level Political Forum in July there is an opportunity to build on the scientist-authored Global Sustainable Development Report to drive systems change, strengthen national and private sector accountability, and elevate success stories. The Forum will reinforce the notion that the Goals apply to all countries, regardless of income level. The year 2020 must be one of strategic focus, prioritization, and specificity for the SDGs, with better metrics to hold governments accountable.

 

3. Inequality and exclusion in focus

Inequality is at the heart of many of the gravest issues facing the global community, including development, climate, and peace. It affects people and structures across societies and borders and threatens to stymie hard-fought development gains.

What does this mean? A recent United Nations report shows that 20% of development progress was lost in recent years due to the unequal distribution of education, health, and living standards. The World Economic Forum has calculated that it will take women almost 100 years to reach gender equality. Exclusionary practices in security, justice, and politics are at the heart of many violent conflicts today. And it is seen as a key factor in the rise of protests around the globe, which shows no signs of abating in 2020.

Toppling barriers to opportunity is key to making the transformative progress needed in 2020. As stressed in the 2019 Human Development Report, we need to evolve our understanding of inequality. Just as the SDGs replaced the more basic Millennium Development Goals, so, too, must we expand our definition of inequality to address the obstacles to 21st century skills and opportunities.

framework inequality

This perspective on inequality means understanding who is getting left behind – where, and how. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual Goalkeepers report measuring SDG progress noted that birthplace and gender are some of the most powerful predictors of future success. For many of the world’s poorest, including women and children, the odds are stacked against them simply because of where they were born.

Another tool to address inequality is expanding measures of economic performance to account for social conditions, as many leading thinkers are starting to do. Some actors, though not nearly enough, are also taking action. New Zealand has created the world’s first ‘Well Being’ budget which balances economic measures with social indicators. And the Business Roundtable shook the business community with a statement that shifts company focus from shareholders to stakeholders.

In 2020, the battle against inequality will take many forms. The 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing takes place amidst a groundswell of demands for women’s equality, rights, and justice. The Secretary-General is shining a light on the connection between human rights and inequality. And addressing inequality will be at the heart of the Decade of Action campaign on the SDGs, as it underpins progress across the framework. This year is an opportunity to bring inequality back into focus and to build approaches necessary to tackle the next frontier of challenges that will affect societies, including around technology and climate change.

 

4. Crises on the brink: Conflict, peace, and humanitarian response

The year 2020 marks the ninth anniversary of the war in Syria, and the fifth in Yemen. Venezuela may very well become the source of the world’s largest and most underfunded refugee crisis. Lethal violence and violent crime is on the rise, affecting growing cities in an urbanizing world. And the risk of interstate conflicts and geopolitical strife has taken center stage.

Crises Venezuela

These factors build on worrying trends from 2019, where more people required assistance than initially forecast due to conflicts and extreme weather-related disasters. Women and children are being disproportionately affected and are at higher risks of sexual and gender-based violence. Over 60% of the world’s chronically food insecure people live in countries affected by conflict.

According to the 2020 Global Humanitarian Report, one out of every 45 people on this planet will need help and protection next year. In 2020, almost 170 million people in crises will need help and protection across more than 50 countries, the highest figure in decades.

These figures put into stark relief the challenges of achieving the SDGs in such daunting contexts. At current rates, 80% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty in 2030 will be in fragile or conflict-affected settings.

We have just witnessed the first year of implementation of UN reforms intended to better connect development work with peacekeeping and security, with an emphasis on preventing conflict. The UN has also been working to strengthen the world’s financial support in times of crisis including through the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, which provided $200 million to underfunded crises around the world. But the scale of the response still does not match the global need, and greater attention must be given to resolving conflicts and providing peace in 2020.

 

5. A united world? The UN at 75

The year 2020 is the time to move the world closer to a sustainable, equitable, and just future and to set the tone for the decade ahead. This comes as the UN approaches its 75th anniversary, offering a moment to reflect on the world we have achieved working together. It is also an opportunity to look forward together.

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The UN is launching a global conversation about the future we want and the issues that matter most, with an intent of asking us all – countries, communities, businesses, organizations, individuals – to help define what we need to get there. It is looking for new ideas, approaches, and partnerships crucial for the complex challenges the world faces, like the ones detailed above. It will encourage us to consider  the intersecting issues and mega-trends that will shape the world ahead: digital technology, conflict and violence, inequality, climate change, shifting demographics, and global health.

These five issues have real and pressing implications today, but their fast-moving trajectories demand global cooperation. This September’s UN General Assembly will serve as an important inflection point on the progress made, gaps remaining, and future needs for collective action to tackle poverty, climate, climate and inequality. And this anniversary year for the UN is a moment to look forward at the many critical paths the world faces and to put in place critical efforts that will affect our world not just today but in the years ahead. The stakes are high and the challenges are not to be underestimated. In 2020, our ability to act, in our shared best interest and for greater collective impact, has never been more important.