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Commissioner Sinkevicius, delivers a keynote speech at the Relaunch of the Institute of Global Sustainable Development (IGSD), online

Commissioner Sinkevicius, recently (23 September 2022) delivered a keynote speech at the Relaunch of the Institute of Global Sustainable Development (IGSD), online.

"Check against delivery"

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

We are here to talk about the Sustainable Development Goals, but in 2022, I don't think we can do that without looking at the broader geopolitical situation as well.

Because however you look at it, Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine is the most significant geo-political development since  fall of the Berlin wall and later collapse of the Soviet Union.

Right now, Europe's priority is providing an emergency response and strengthening Ukraine's defense capacities.

But we have to accept that the consequences are enormous. The war has created one of the largest refugee crises of modern times, affecting many aspects of the global sustainable development agenda.

The conflict has caused food, fuel and fertilizer prices to skyrocket, it has disrupted global trade and supply chains, and it's caused a lot of distress in the financial markets. And of course, the fear of energy prices in the winter ahead is on everyone's mind.

When you put those things together – the refugee crisis, the impacts of the war and the related energy and food crisis – it adds up to a significant blow to progress on the SDGs. And this at a moment where progress towards SDGs had already slowed down due to the Covid crisis. And as always, the poorest and most vulnerable are hit the hardest.

It also weakens the global multilateral and rules-based order. You can't have sustainable development without peace.

And of course, the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, compounded by our excessive use of resources, they haven't gone away.

This summer we experienced more frequent and more violent extreme weather events than ever before. And if we now take emergency measures to prolong our use of fossil fuels, or we postpone measures to protect biodiversity, we compromise our chances of delivering a green transition.

So these crises are putting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in serious danger. That was underlined very clearly in the 2022 UN progress report. According to the latest Human Development Report, recently published by the UN Development Programme, human development has gone backwards for the second year in a row. In fact we're now back to the levels we last saw in 2016.

This has enormous consequences. It means that, in practice, an additional 75 million to 95 million people in the world will live in extreme poverty in 2022, compared to pre-pandemic level. It means that billions of children have missed out on schooling, and that over 100 million more children fell below the minimum proficiency level for reading.

These rising prices for food and energy, alongside other multiple impacts of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, they're compromising the whole implementation of the SDGs at the global level. It's exacerbating existing challenges, in particular for food and nutrition insecurity, driven by the effects of climate change, and potentially creating new clusters of instability.

To get the SDGs back on track, and to keep the 1.5-degree goal alive, we need to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by the Covid recovery. It offers a unique opportunity in so many fields. A chance to switch to low-carbon, resilient and inclusive development pathways. Pathways that reduce carbon emissions, conserve natural resources, transform our food systems, create better jobs, and advance the transition to a greener, more inclusive and just economy.

In the EU, we do have a massive rescue effort under way.

We put in place a huge support to our member states and help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The support that's coming through the Recovery and Resilience Facility underpins a number of major reforms and investments that should help Member States make further progress toward the SDGs.

But what matters even more is continuing on that path, and driving for system change, in line with the Agenda 2030.

Inside the European Commission, the will is there.

Sustainability is an overriding political priority for the Von der Leyen Commission.

We have kicked off concrete and deeply transformative actions that will directly contribute to accelerating the implementation of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.

We have put many goal specific activities in place. But I would highlight the structural and cross-cutting measures in particular. 

The EU re-oriented the EU budget's contributions towards the achievement of the EU's long-term objectives through the new Multiannual Financial Framework beyond 2020.

And we refocused its macroeconomic surveillance and coordination framework to integrate the SDGs. That has the effect of putting sustainability and the well-being of citizens at the center of economic policy.

We're also ensuring that every new legislative proposal contributes to the 2030 Agenda. And we're very careful to ensure that the principle of “do no significant harm” – the watchword of the European Green Deal, remember – is applied in full across all our policies.

Perhaps I should have mentioned the European Green Deal before.

We actually adopted it before the pandemic, but it's proved a very useful guide to keep us on a long-term, permanent track to sustainability. The Deal is an integral part of our strategy to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is our growth strategy, with people and the planet at its core. We remain committed to our objectives, even in these times of war and crisis.

What it brings is a roadmap to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy. An economy where there are no net emission of greenhouse gases in 2050, where economic growth is decoupled from resource use, and where we embrace the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.

When the Russian invasion into Ukraine happened, there were some voices asking to slow its implementation.

But we know that what's good for our planet. We also know that it's good for our economy and for social cohesion. And now we can also see that it's vital for our freedom.

Right now, we still need fossil fuels, and we need to provide relief for citizens who are suffering too much because of the high energy prices. We need to be ready for the next winter.

But the direction of travel is absolutely clear. We launched RePower EU to end our dependency on Russian gas. And we agreed on a ban on Russian coal and Russian fuel.

Since the war began, we've started having difficult conversations about people's behaviour. Shall we dial down heating or cooling? Should we close public pools? These things can make a big difference in the medium term, prolonging supplies.

But the long-term solution is a full transition to decarbonised energy. 

Energy efficiency in our buildings, together with solar panels in rooftops and heat pumps are the most urgent actions.

 And of course, it's about much more than energy.

We need to strengthen the resiliency of our value chains to external shocks. That might be Covid, now it's war, tomorrow it could be something else. All this is ammunition that strengthens the case for a more circular economy.

The Sustainable Product Initiative aims to double our use of recycled material in production processes. Right now it's still around 12%, and it hasn't changed much in recent years. To make a substantive change, we address the whole life-cycle of products, stop planned obsolescence and give consumers a right have broken items repaired.

 So what we're doing is a significant broadening of the rules on eco-design, bringing that thinking to a far wider range of familiar products. When the new rules are put into practice, they will save consumers 100 billion euros every year until 2030. Those energy savings are more or less exactly equivalent to the amount of gas we import from Russian every year.

Beyond the production process, we need new business models as well. We need companies to integrate the environmental costs, risks and opportunities into business accounting, reporting and corporate responsibility.

Because still today, despite urgent crises and the urgent, obvious need for reform, too many business strategies are still guided by the short term thinking. It's time for a switch to different values, more based in the reality of the planet we depend on.

There are so many arguments for greater circularity. It reduces our environmental footprint, ensures sustainable growth through new business opportunities, and it supports social cohesion through local job creation. It ticks every box for the SDGs.

The European Green Deal is not some new kind of dictatorship. We listen to people's concerns, and we understand that change is hard, and that it can't happen overnight.

The global food crisis is real, and some farmers are under considerable strain. That's why the Commission has agreed to provide some flexibility to its Member States and protect our farmers, in the face of rising input costs for energy and fertilizers.

But here again, there is no doubt about the long-term destination. The best way to ensure food security in the medium and long term is to deliver on policies like Farm to Fork, the EU Strategy for sustainable food. This includes reducing foot waste by half by 2030, which brings savings for consumers and operators and protect the planet.

Along similar lines, we just presented a new law on Nature Restoration, with a view to restoring degraded ecosystems across the EU. We concentrate on ecosystems with the highest potential to sequester carbon, and those best suited to prevent and reduce the impact of natural disasters.

These are solutions that really work. The UN calculates that every euro spent on land restoration brings an economic return of 7 to 30 euro. This gives a vision for an economy that gives back to the planet.

At COP 15, the upcoming meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, we'll stand by this approach. We'll push hard for an ambitious outcome on new Global Biodiversity Goals. And for the High Seas as well. A global agreement on biodiversity is a top priority for the EU as a whole.

The last part of the EU Green Deal is what we call zero pollution. It's a vision for 2050, where we bring down pollution to levels that are no longer harmful to the environment or human health. And when we do that, there are major co-benefits for addressing climate and biodiversity. What it takes is an integrated approach.

Most recently, we just proposed to revise our legislation on Industrial Emissions, extending it to cover a far wider spectrum of polluting activities, including intensive agriculture. There are new legal provisions, but incentives as well – as we want to see businesses increase their ambitions.

In addition to that, we're updating legislation on Urban Waste Water Treatment, and aligning Air Quality Directives more closely with recommendations from the World Health Organization. We're also reviewing our water legislation.

I said at the outset we need an urgent new effort.

I do think that's possible, and that it will take us in the right direction towards meeting the SDGs, but with one important condition.

If we want to convince citizens that transformative reforms are in their interest, they have to believe the path is fair.

You need civil society on board, helping design the transformative processes is key. We've just done that with the Conference on the Future of Europe, and the answer we got was very clear. Citizens really want to be more deeply involved in policy design.

So that's what we're aiming to do, we're determined to deepen civil society and stakeholder involvement in policy design.

In practice, that means Citizens Panels to deliberate and make recommendations ahead of key proposals. Panels that reflect Europe's diversity and demography. Young people should form a third of the participants, in line with one core values of the Agenda 2030: intergenerational Justice. We're putting that principle into practice.

We are already halfway through implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Global efforts so far have not been enough. They've also been hindered by the pandemic, conflicts, the war in Ukraine, growing inequalities and unabated environmental degradation.

The clock continues to tick.

The triple crises of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are closely connected. If we want to safeguard a viable future, they need to be resolved together.

Solutions exist. We know what they are. But they require major structural transformations, a change in attitude and further investment.

We are committed to doing our best. The challenges are enormous. But we still have the will to deliver.

Thank you for your attention.

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