The former president, Barack Obama, should head a new 1,000-day global taskforce to accelerate progress towards the Global Goals and avoid dire consequences. The state of the energy sector proves the urgency for rethinking the process.

By Erik Rasmussen, Founder of Sustainia

Obama’s next job is obvious. Barack Obama has the skills, the experience, the values, the credibility and global connections that makes him the perfect candidate for the most important international position for the years to come. Instead of writing books and doing speeches, Obama should head an organization to initiate and coordinate 17 industrial revolutions simultaneously – using his name and power to set the world on a sustainable course. It was a top agenda while in office and should continue to be today.

Without major steps forward in the next 1,000 days, we might lose the battle for a safe and sustainable future. This is the widespread conclusion of several major analyses and reports.

Implementing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a must-win battle for the globe. This month it is exactly 1,000 days ago that 193 countries agreed on the goals, because all the countries realised the necessity of a global, coordinated approach to the world’s biggest challenges, and they set 2030 as the ultimate deadline. But so far progress is off track. Without major steps forward in the next 1,000 days, we might lose the battle for a safe and sustainable future. This is the widespread conclusion of several major analyses and reports. But just implementing one of the Global Goals takes an industrial revolution of its own – we then need to multiply that by 17. This requires an unprecedented effort and a strong coordinating task force – a Global Goals Accelerator. Its impact however, will be decided by its leadership. And that job calls for a person like Barack Obama.

This week Sustainia starts documenting the size of the challenge.

During the coming weeks, we will analyse what is needed to fulfil each of the goals, and update you on what the challenges and the opportunities are. This week we feature SDG number 7: Access to affordable and clean energy. It is a representative case. Progress in every area of sustainable energy falls short of what is needed to achieve energy access for all and to meet targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean cooking. On the flipside – opportunities are tremendous.

The call for action

“We must step up. Without urgent action, the world will fall short of achieving SDG7 and consequently other SDGs”. This is the conclusion of the most comprehensive study on all energy forms, published earlier this year by a large group of the world’s leading organisations and institutions related to energy. It is summed up in a UN Policy Brief to be discussed at a UN High-Level Political Forum next month, which states that SDG7 is within reach, provided that “the future transformations take place at a much higher rate of change than observed in the past. This requires disruptive thinking in terms of the imagined futures and the complementary disruptive policy interventions.”

In other words: The world has to rethink how to accelerate the transformations of the global energy sector if we should stand any chance of meeting the Global Goals. Progress has been made, but not fast enough.

The general conclusions are verified and further explored in the UN brief and other reports digested by Sustainia. Here are some quotes from our digest:

  • Access to electricity: Based on recent trends and policies, the number of people without electricity access is expected to remain over 670 million in 2030
  • Renewable energy: The world is currently not on track to achieve the SDG7 renewable energy indicator. Action in energy use for heating and transport is too slow, with a limited increase in renewable shares seen in recent years.
  • Energy efficiency: We are severely lagging behind in this area and in need of help from business. The global investment in energy efficiency needs to reach $1 trillion per year. The current level is only around $221 billion.
  • Clean cooking: 3 billion people rely today on traditional and unhealthy cooking systems. It causes 4.3 million premature deaths annually. With a business as usual approach, 2.3 billion people will lack clean cooking access by 2030, causing 2.5 million deaths every year.

Lagging behind with the energy transformation will unfortunately effect several other Global Goals like poverty, inequality, food, water, and health, slowing down their process. There is a strong interconnection between several of the goals. But lack of sufficient progress seems to be a general challenge for most of the goals, especially for climate action and inequality, and confronts the world with an unprecedented challenge.

The challenge

That is why the multinational organisations have to reconsider how to speed up action, and avoid the catastrophic consequences of not meeting the Global Goals. Not only will global institutions like the UN lose all credibility, but much worse: The world will lose control of its own future. We might end up in a state of emergency, but with no governmental leadership. We are not there yet, but we might be heading in that direction unless faster action is taken. Lessons learned from the first 1,000 days causes that much concern, that a Plan B should be considered seriously.

The problem with the existing governance of the Global Goals is that it is scattered, and takes place in many different forums, addressing different vested interests and often slowed down by bureaucratic processes. This year the UN hosts their 24th global climate conference (COP24) and can conclude that while they have been talking and negotiating for 24 years, climate change has accelerated and is now passing dangerous tipping points. Even though there is much to say for a multifaceted process, it is not geared towards addressing big, complex and fast accelerating global challenges. Here is where Barack Obama can spearhead real and timely change.

The opportunity

Will a new organisation be any better – or just develop another bureaucratic monster? And what kind of mandate should it have? This could present a risk, unless the mandate is clear and time limited, for example to 1,000 days. The mission should focus on innovating new ways and means to speed up and coordinate the effort, and ensure widespread global engagement by helping to tell the world the benefits of fast action. In other words: not being a political body and overruling any of the governmental institutions. But we might need a think- and action tank that could help to disrupt the whole implementation process – of course in close partnership with the old multinational organisations.

It is easy to find all the arguments against a new institution, and there might be other solutions to deliver faster results. But it is a question about how serious the global society is about the Global Goals. Is 2030 just a meaningless intention, or do we really feel it is the deadline? The answer decides if we should investigate alternative ideas to speed up progress.

If not this, then what? Just hope for the best, hope that the needed industrial revolutions unfold by themselves in due time? The reality is that fulfilling the 17 Global Goals not only equals 17 industrial revolutions, but they have to be the fastest ever, and the first planned using models and methods never tried before – at least not with that speed. New cross-sector alliances have to be made, new regulation passed, new and much larger investments secured, and new innovations scaled.

Is 2030 just a meaningless intention, or do we really feel it is the deadline? The answer decides if we should investigate alternative ideas to speed up progress.

But if we succeed, the Global Goals could turn the accelerating global risks into the most ambitious, prosperous and sustainable industrial revolution in the history of mankind. It should be worth giving it all the best options, and right now we need a time out to discuss how to get the process back on track. And here Barack Obama and a special task force could make a difference – given a clear, innovative and time-limited mission.

In the real world this type of ambition and vision may not fly, but considered to be too far out, and too disruptive. But the existing institutions owe the next generation an answer on how they will ensure a safe and sustainable future – and that they were committed to fulfill their own goals in time. So far the process is not convincing, and better answers will be needed in the future. Barack Obama could be a great storyteller and somebody should engage him and provide a platform where here isn’t tied up and limited by bureaucratic rules and regulations, but had the same freedom as Al Gore had with his successful climate mission. Now we need another agenda-setter for the Global Goals. And the candidate is obvious.

Want to learn more? Read our article “Thomas Friedman: We Need Greedy Leaders“.