SDSN's Recommendations for the Summit of the Future

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) is pleased to present its recommendations for a "United Nations 2.0" as a contribution to the upcoming summit. This statement is the work of many individuals across the SDSN Network and is featured as the first chapter in the Sustainable Development Report 2024.

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The Summit of the Future is a unique and vital opportunity for the world community to update and upgrade the United Nations (UN) to meet the great challenges of the 21st century. We are midway between the founding of the UN in 1945 and the year 2100. This is a key moment to take stock of the accomplishments and limitations of the UN to date, and to update and upgrade the UN institutions for the balance of the century. The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) is pleased to present its recommendations for United Nations 2.0 as a contribution to the upcoming summit. This statement is the work of many individuals listed at the end of this statement.

We take sustainable development to be the guiding principle for our age, as summarized by the five P’s: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnerships. People signifies the commitment to leave no person, no group, no nation, and no region behind. Planet signifies the challenge of living within the planetary boundaries. Prosperity signifies the commitment to extend the material benefits of modern education and technology to all parts of the world, and to all member states of the UN. Peace signifies the vital commitment by all nations in the nuclear age to live together under the UN Charter and international law, including the duty of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations and the duty of peaceful resolution of conflicts, guided by international law. Partnerships signifies the commitment by all stakeholders, including governments, civil society, and business organizations, to work together cooperatively, honestly, and ethically to achieve the shared goals of humanity.

These five P’s also express the core aspirations of the UN member states for the basic pillars of human decency: human rights, as in the foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights; gender equality, as underscored in SDG 5; the end of extreme poverty in a world of great wealth, as called for by SDG 1; and the end of hunger in a world of dazzling technological breakthroughs in sustainable agriculture, promoted in SDG 2.

We underscore the priority of Peace as the necessary condition to achieve every other objective. If war is the continuation of politics with other means, as was famously written,1 it is also the stark failure of politics. The genius of the UN is that it can avert death and destruction through diplomacy and the commitment of all nations to the UN Charter. We appeal to all nations to resort to diplomacy, negotiation, and international law to resolve grievances that arise between states. When wars are raging or threatening to rage, the Security Council should work relentlessly to identify their underlying political causes, and adopt measures to end or prevent the conflicts in ways that meet the vital and just interests of all parties.

We note that we have arrived at a new phase in global history. The year 1945 marked the end of the Second World War, and the start of the era of decolonization, in which the UN played a major role. It also marked the start of the Cold War and of a world dominated by two superpowers. The 2020s mark the start of a new multi-polar era, in which all regions of the world are achieving significant breakthroughs in education, science and technology. No region yearns for a “hegemon,” that is, for one dominant power. All regions yearn for prosperity, security, peace and cooperation, without one dominant country or region lording it over the others. While vast differences in material conditions still exist across the globe, there are real prospects for the emerging economies, both low income and middle income, to narrow the educational and technological gaps with the richer countries, enabling all parts of the world to enjoy the benefits of modern science and technology. Of course, the convergence to shared prosperity will depend utterly on peace, cooperation, and effective multilateral institutions.

At the same time, the year 2024 marks a crossroads. One path, the wrong path, leads to deepening ecological crises, increasing climate-driven disasters, widening inequalities, spreading conflicts, and even more dangerous new AI-enabled technologies for war, fake news, and state surveillance; while the other path leads to sustainability, the end of poverty, global peace, and the harnessing of digital technologies for human progress for all. The Summit of the Future is a timely and urgent opportunity to choose the path of peace and sustainable development.

A new and effective multilateralism is more important than ever before also because peoples and nations are more interconnected than ever before. No nation can solve the global climate crisis on its own. No nation can make a low-cost and just energy transition on its own. No nation can ensure peace and security on its own. No nation by itself can protect the vital ecosystems – such as river sheds, inland seas, ocean fisheries, rainforests, wetlands, and alpine regions – that they share with neighboring countries. No nation by itself can avoid the potential dangers and pitfalls of runaway technologies, whether advanced biotechnologies that can create new pathogens, or artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can create fake news or provocations to war.

In the language of public economics, the world requires many essential public goods that far transcend the nation state. While national governments are essential to providing many public goods at the national scale, regional groupings such as the European Union, African Union, ASEAN, the Arab League, and many others should be essential actors to providing regional public goods such as ecosystem protection and regional decarbonized energy systems. The UN and its many specialized agencies are essential in providing global public goods and protecting the global commons, such as the legal frameworks for climate action, the protection of biodiversity, the law of the seas, the protection of the ozone layer, the stability of the global financial system, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its covenants, and the peaceful resolution of inter-state disputes.

In addition to providing global public goods, the UN must also help to protect the biosphere and its diversity, critical ecosystems such as the rainforests, the oceans and the atmosphere, and the stable climate of the Holocene, on which civilization has been built, but which is now on the verge of escaping our grasp due to anthropogenic climate change. Achieving sustainable land systems, and crucially, sustainable food systems, is one of the six SDG transformations identified by the SDSN and one of the most complex of the SDG transformations.2

To a great extent, Sustainable development is a long-term investment challenge. To achieve prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental protection, nations and regions require well-designed, well-implemented, and properly governed and financed programs of public and private investment. Major investment priorities include quality education, universal health coverage, zero-carbon energy systems, sustainable agriculture, urban infrastructure, and digital connectivity. All of this requires long-term national and regional plans backed by a Global Financial Architecture (GFA) that is reformed to be fit for purpose. The overwhelming problem with the current GFA is that most low-income countries (LICs) and lower-middle-income countries (LMICs) pay an inordinately high cost of capital, much higher than paid by the high-income countries (HICs). The deck is stacked against the LICs and LMICs. These countries urgently need to gain access to affordable long-term capital, so that they can invest at scale to achieve their sustainable development objectives. To bring about the needed financial mobilization, new institutions and new forms of global financing – including global taxation – will be required.

We underscore the enormous responsibility for achieving the SDGs and safeguarding the planetary boundaries of the members of the G21 (the former G20 plus the newest permanent member, the African Union). The G21 represents the preponderance of the world’s GDP, population, forests, landmass, and fossil-fuel production. Given the universality of the 2030 Agenda, the UN system needs to strengthen existing and design new mechanisms to enforce the implementation of the SDGs also within and by the G21 members.

The private sector must be a key driver for sustainable development, including leadership of technological transformations in energy, agriculture, climate resilience, digital economy and urban infrastructure essential for sustainable development. Profits must be the reward for contributions to the common good, not private gains achieved at the public’s expense. Ethical businesses should align with the SDGs and hold themselves accountable to these global goals.

The SDGs highlight the strengths and weakness of the current UN system. The 193 UN member states achieved a great milestone in agreeing to a shared framework for global transformation by 2030, and to 17 overarching goals with 169 specified targets. Furthermore, the SDG agenda has taken hold. Almost all UN member states (188 out of 193) have presented Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of their SDG strategies, and 2 more will do so in 2024, leaving only Haiti, Myanmar, and the United States as the final three nations to have not yet taken part in the VNR process.

On the other hand, the SDGs will not be achieved by 2030, in significant part because of the many shortcomings of the Global Financial Architecture. The severe and ongoing geopolitical tensions have also gravely undermined cooperation among the major economies. Of course, Covid-19 was also an enormous shock to the global economy and to progress on the SDGs.

It has become clear that the UN system needs significant upgrading, in essence, a UN 2.0. We declare this out of our deep commitment to the UN system, and our abiding belief in its centrality for the future we want. We believe that the UN should be strengthened and empowered to underpin the new multi-polar world. Reforms include new UN bodies, such as a UN Parliament, new forms of global financing, and new strategies to ensure observance of international law and peace among the major powers. Ultimately, the UN Charter itself will need to be revised and updated to reflect our 21st century needs and realities.

A new multilateralism that works should be based on five core pillars of UN reform. First, the UN should empower nations and regions to adopt meaningful and comprehensive pathways to sustainable development by 2050. During the transition to 2050, ambitions must remain high for advances in prosperity, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Second, the UN should promote the implementation of the SDG pathways through stronger global agreements and more empowered UN institutions. Third, the UN should have the capacity to finance the SDGs through new global taxes and a renovated GFA. Fourth, the UN should represent We the Peoples by adding new forums of representation, especially a new UN Parliament of the Peoples. Fifth, the UN and its member states should harness the advances in science and technology for the human good, and be ever-vigilant against the potential misuses of advanced technologies including biotechnology, AI, and geoengineering.

In this spirit, we recommend specific reforms in the five major areas of the Summit of the Future agenda: sustainable development and financing for development; international peace and security; science, technology, and innovation; youth and future generations; and global governance.