The Sustainable Development Report 2023 shows that the world is on track to achieve only 15% of the 140 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets it reviewed – out of a total of 169.
The UN Secretary-General has warned that "unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been”. He underlined the need for different forms of finance to work together in an aligned way, and the “business-as-usual” approach is no longer viable.
A significant challenge countries face is the lack of reliable data on the costs associated with achieving the SDGs. This data gap makes it challenging to allocate resources effectively, including aligning national budgets, investment, financial flows and debt relief to what is required to hit the targets.
To address this gap, the United Nations initiated in February 2023 a project to pool together and create easy-to-use tools that help countries assess how much they need to spend to achieve these goals. The project aligns with UN Secretary-General António Guterres's broader "Rescue Plan for People and Planet", and is intended to support countries' work within Integrated National Financing Frameworks (INFFs).
The work is led by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in partnership with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Applying a new method developed by UNCTAD in Egypt, UNCTAD has calculated the spending needed to accelerate progress in six SDG transition pathways and gender equality. Tools and resources to support all stakeholders in SDG costing were provided by numerous partners, namely the UN Women, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
The data compiled by UNCTAD on the cost of SDG transition pathways underscores a pressing need for immediate action. Delaying SDG financing annually increases the funds required by 2030 and reduces the likelihood of attaining the goals.
While high spending can help achieve the SDGs, it is no guarantee. What matters is how well investment flows, national budgets and international support are aligned with SDGs. The project therefore helps governments identify more targeted and effective ways to spend to ensure no one is left behind.
Six pathways to sustainable development
UNCTAD calculated the costs along six key “transition pathways” that can amplify efforts and speed up progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
- Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution: Includes strengthening commitments under the Paris Agreement, improving ecosystem management, reducing the effects of disasters and integrating climate and biodiversity actions.
- Energy transition: Includes transitioning to renewable energy and improving energy efficiency, providing universal access to affordable and clean electricity, including clean cooking.
- Food systems: Includes action to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, shift from environmentally harmful practices, protect biodiversity and achieve climate neutrality.
- Education transformation: Includes investing in education, early childhood development and care, and enhancing scientific research.
- Social protection and decent jobs: Includes providing universal health care and social protection, promoting gender equality and inclusion in society and decision-making, advancing decent jobs and driving prosperity.
- Inclusive digitalization: Includes progressing towards universal digital access and use of digital resources, equal access to banking and financial services and higher technology activities.
In addition to these six pathways, UNCTAD is working with UN Women to estimate the cost of achieving gender equality for certain SDG indicators.
Cost of achieving the pathways
This study looks at the cost of accelerating access towards the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by focusing efforts on six SDG transition pathways. The resulting cost estimates for the pathways vary, ranging from $5.4 trillion to $6.4 trillion annually from 2023 to 2030. This translates to between $1,179 and $1,383 per person each year.
Gender equality and food systems command the highest costs while they are incremental for ensuring the conditions for achieving the SDGs. The social protection and decent jobs pathway proves to be the least expensive even though it covers a wide range of targets critical for our wellbeing.
When expanded to cover all developing economies, using the median per capita cost of the 48 developing economies included in the study, the total annual needs fall between $6.9 trillion and $7.6 trillion.
Roughly 80% of the total spending is anticipated to occur in the study’s upper-middle and high-income developing countries. They typically face the highest per-person annual costs and largest financing gaps. For example, their shortfall in the energy transition pathway accounts for a staggering 98% of the gap across all 48 developing economies.
The analysis identifies areas where international support is critically needed. Small island developing states also face high per-capita costs. Their projected spending requirements for gender equality, for example, stands at $3,724 per person – nearly triple the average.
In contrast, the least developed countries in the study face much lower per-person costs. However, the required spending is daunting when seen as a share of GDP – surpassing 40% for all the pathways and reaching 47% for education.
The calculations reveal substantial gaps in the current spending trajectory. The largest shortfall is in inclusive digitalization, at $468 billion annually. Conversely, the social protection and decent jobs pathway shows the smallest gap of $294 billion.
The key figures are discussed by pathway here.
The estimates were calculated for over 90 economies, representing 72% of the global population. The analysis focuses on 48 developing economies, comprising 19 that are classified as low and lower-middle-income, while the other 29 fall under the upper-middle and high-income bracket. The analysis covers 68% of people living in developing economies worldwide.
Certain economies in the study are especially vulnerable, due to geographical or developmental factors. Nine landlocked developing countries (LLDCs), eight small island developing states (SIDS) and six least developed countries (LDCs) were included in the study.
By increasing the availability of key official statistics on government expenditure and improving reporting on SDG indicators, it would be possible to analyze the cost of achieving the SDGs in all countries. The analysis is particularly hampered by the lack of data for African countries. Nine African countries, covering 20% of the continent’s population, were included in the analysis.
The costing method helps to identify synergies – showing how spending in one area can also boost results in others. It shows how combined spending could help fast-track progress towards the SDGs.
Take education, for example. Investment in education creates ripples across various SDGs. This is because better education systems improve human skills, boost the economy, reduce inequalities, spur innovation and promote sustainable growth. Among all sectors, the highest synergies are found between health and education spending.
What does this mean for economies with limited resources? They don't have to stretch every dollar to cover every goal. They don’t have to finance the overall total to achieve the pathways. By understanding the synergies and capitalizing on them, nations can make the most of their resources and bring the 2030 Agenda within reach.
The estimates also aim to highlight gaps in progress towards the SDGs and identify areas requiring additional financing to accelerate progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.