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Deepening economic inequality and increased pressures from climate change and biodiversity loss threaten to throw the world off-course for meeting a slate of SDGs by 2030, scientists have warned.

The independent group of 15 scientists was convened by the UN to examine what kind of progress has been made towards the goals of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2016.

Those targets are still within reach, the report said, but not without drastic, concerted action to reduce social and gender inequalities and fundamentally change society’s relationship with the natural environment.

The assessment comes as world leaders gather in New York this week for the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, including a summit on climate action and the first-ever high-level meeting on universal health coverage, both on 23 September. The report will be officially launched at the SDG summit taking place on 24-25 September.

“Overall, the picture is sobering. Broader trends threaten to undermine and reverse progress on a massive scale,”

Shantanu Mukherjee, UN Division for Sustainable Development Goals

Shantanu Mukherjee, chief of the Integrated Policy and Analysis Branch of the UN’s Division for Sustainable Development Goals, said: “Overall, the picture is sobering. Broader trends threaten to undermine and reverse progress on a massive scale.

“This threatens to push the world to a tipping point beyond which earth will be altered beyond recognition. By then, it will be too late to adapt.”

Nations around the world must step up action to tackle poverty and produce food more efficiently to reduce waste and increase food security, urged the report published 11 September, entitled “The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development.

Cities should be redeveloped to reduce pollution and improve health, increase access to cleaner, more affordable energy, and strengthen management of natural resources, it said.

And these changes must be underpinned by science, with increased investment in sustainability research and scientific institutions, especially in the Global South, the report added.

It warned that increased consumption of goods is no longer a “viable option”. If projections for material use stay on course up to 2060, doubling from the current 89 gigatons of material annually to 167 gigatons, greenhouse gas emissions and other toxic byproducts will increase accordingly, scientists warned.

While current development models have broadly boosted wealth and prosperity in recent decades, they have also “led to continuing poverty, and unprecedented levels of inequality that undermine innovation, social cohesion and sustainable economic growth,” the report states.

Peter Messerli, report committee co-chair and director of the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern, Switzerland, says this lack of progress has been driven by a collective refusal to recognise the urgency of deteriorating food, health, and economic systems, as well as the interconnected nature of these systems.

“We stand at a crossroads where we can continue to try and tick boxes of targets and the sustainable development goals, or choose a more strategic systemic approach,” Messerli said.

“This will not be an easy journey. We see there are powerful and vested interests that don’t want to see change. But this report provides information on current knowledge on levers that can be used to handle the winners and losers of these changes that we so urgently need.”

The report outlines 20 calls to action to accelerate progress towards the SDGs in the coming decade, including fundamental changes to the food system to reduce the environmental impact of food production.

Endah Murniningtyas, report co-chair and former deputy planning minister of Indonesia, says these calls to action are not intended to be incremental, but transformational.

“Multinational organisations, governments and public authorities should explicitly adopt this … report as a guideline for their planning to accelerate the 2030 Agenda,” Murniningtyas said.

“Every country and region should design and rapidly integrate policy for their specific needs, but this will also contribute to the necessary global transformation. The future is determined by the action we all take now.” Mukherjee added that there are a number of steps which could correct this trajectory that are “within our current capacities, but which need to start now”.

Patrick Schröder, a senior research fellow at Chatham House who studies circular economy practices for increasing sustainability, believes the international collaboration the report urges is crucial – but currently lacking.

“Without cooperation on systems to improve technology transfer, capacity building and joint policy development, without this, the Sustainable Development Goals will not be achievable,” Schröder told SciDev.Net.

“And unfortunately, the current political climate is not very conducive to this cooperation. Having said that, there is cooperation happening; it just needs to be scaled up to be more impactful.”