Inspiring Change: Professor Jeffrey Sachs on Global Sustainability

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2023 was a year of increasingly serious climate crises, armed conflicts and intensifying geopolitical tensions. At the start of 2024, the world seems further away than ever from achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, as was once hoped. We desperately need to get back on track and accelerate progress.

The SDGs are the responsibility of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). This network works under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General to promote integrated approaches to implement the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change through education, research, policy analysis, and global cooperation.

Leader of the charge for sustainable development

With his deep knowledge and experience, the internationally-respected economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs serves as University Professor and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and the President of UN SDSN. He is a leading figure in advancing the global sustainability agenda. His exceptional contributions have been recognised and honoured with numerous awards, including the Blue Planet Prize in 2015, the prestigious Tang Prize for Sustainable Development in 2022 and an Honorary Doctorate of Social Science awarded by The Chinese University of Hong Kong in October 2023.

For the last 25 years, Professor Sachs has played a pivotal role in the world’s pursuit of sustainability. Having served as the adviser to three UN Secretary Generals, he was involved in formulating strategies for accomplishing the UN Millennium Development Goals and later helped design and launch the SDGs. Before becoming an advocate for sustainable development, he was known as a leading figure in macroeconomics, where he placed his expertise at the service of countries facing acute economic crisis. For example, he contributed to resolving Bolivia’s hyperinflation by applying a ‘shock therapy’ back in the 1980s. Towards the end of the cold war, he was called upon by post-communist states to assist with the transition from a planned to a market economy. He has now advised dozens of world leaders in all parts of the world, including China.

Achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

In an interview with the South China Morning Post last year, Professor Sachs shared the good news that the 17 SDGs have now been widely adopted in the planning of most governments worldwide. They track the goals, establish pathways to achieve them, and set budgets to promote them. However, he pointed out certain hindrances to their timely achievement. “Unfortunately, for many reasons – inadequate finances, poverty, Covid, wars, climate shocks, geopolitics – the goals remain far off track and will not be achieved by 2030. There is a strong movement now to embed the goals, with updated targets, into the 2050 agenda that will soon be set at the United Nations, starting with the Summit of the Future in September 2024.”

Hong Kong’s pioneering role in sustainable development

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Professor Sachs visits the SDG Steps at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Professor Sachs also notes that Hong Kong has the potential to play a leadership role in sustainable development, given its reputation as one of the most prosperous and dynamic places on the planet.

“The Greater Bay Area is a hub of 21st-century technology and 70 million people in several of the world’s most dynamic cities. Hong Kong can and should play a leadership role in helping the entire world achieve Sustainable Development. This leadership should operate at several scales: for Hong Kong itself, for the Greater Bay Area, for China, and for connecting Asia with the rest of the world. It should operate through businesses, universities, civil society, and government. The Hong Kong Chapter of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN Hong Kong) already plays a global role within the context of the world’s universities,” he adds.  

Recommendations for Hong Kong’s sustainable development goals

To achieve the sustainable development goals, Professor Sachs recommends that Hong Kong focus on several key areas. “At the local level, Hong Kong should continue to promote the achievement of a zero-carbon energy system connected to the mainland, green spaces, a circular economy with reduced waste, and a higher quality of life with more time for leisure and culture. Policies should aim to reduce high-income and housing inequalities. At the regional level, Hong Kong should help the Greater Bay Area to be a world leader, if not the world leader, in sustainable development technologies, research and development, and financing. At the global level, Hong Kong should continue to be the meeting point of East and West in trade, tourism, finance, and culture.”  

Prioritising peace, cooperation, and new solutions

Looking ahead, Professor Sachs emphasises prioritising peace as the first global imperative. “Ending the wars in Ukraine and Gaza through diplomacy, and then engaging in stepped-up diplomacy between the US and China. The two great powers should cooperate on SDG solutions rather than threatening war, which would be an unimaginable catastrophe. We should aim to set new ground rules for global cooperation and sustainable financing, starting with the breakthrough Summit of the Future at the UN in September 2024. 

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Professor Sachs emphasises that wars in Ukraine and Gaza can be ended through diplomacy.

“In the meantime, business and academia should not wait for government. We need to be putting forward new political, social, and technological solutions for the range of global-scale challenges, including climate change, poverty, and education and health for all,” he concludes.

Global Conference on Sustainable Development in Hong Kong synergises stakeholders to implement solutions

On 4 and 5 October 2023, leaders from academia and the public and private sectors convened in person at The Chinese University of Hong Kong or online to participate in the Global Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference was an opportunity to exchange ideas and foster collaboration on the challenges and opportunities in realising the SDGs. Professor Sachs, as one of the keynote speakers, gave a speech on the topic “The World in 2050”.  

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Professor Jeffrey Sachs gives a keynote speech titled “The World in 2050” at the Global Conference on Sustainable Development.

Organised by SDSN Hong Kong, this conference marked a significant milestone as its first international event.

Professor Sachs returns to Hong Kong this January as a keynote speaker at the Asian Financial Forum 2024. The forum discusses the global economy from an Asian perspective under the theme “Multilateral Cooperation for a Shared Tomorrow.”

Collaborative efforts for a sustainable future

We are halfway to 2030, but much remains to be done nationally, regionally and globally. By fostering cross-sector collaboration among governments, businesses, academia, and civil society, we can change the future for generations to come.  

The time for action is now.

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