A view of Washington Square Park in New York with tall buildings beyond
Amr Alfiky/Reuters

So far, it’s the only city in the world to publish a review of its progress toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

On Wednesday, New York City became the first city in the world to report to the United Nations on its progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The move is part of a larger trend of U.S. cities pursuing environmental progress amid inaction from the federal government, and of New York, in particular, taking an ambitious course on climate policy. The city pledged in 2014 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an order last year committing to the Paris accord goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The voluntary review describes the city’s progress toward the five SDGs the UN prioritized this year: clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; sustainable cities and communities; responsible consumption and production; and protecting land.

Back in 2015, 193 countries agreed to 17 SDGs—broad goals around challenges like climate change, poverty, and inequality—and a whopping 169 individual targets within them, to be achieved by 2030. New York City is not a nation, of course, but it does have more people than (for instance) Ireland or Norway. And in practice, many of the changes that the global goals suggest require local action—hence the city’s self-assessment.

“We needed a starting point [from the UN], but all of the activation—whether it is around zero hunger, gender equity, clean water and sanitation—starts in our communities,” said NYC Commissioner of International Affairs Penny Abeywardena. “City and local authorities are ground zero for all of that work.”

The Mayor’s Office for International Affairs wrote the report, in partnership with the offices of Operations and Climate Policy and
Programs, and in consultation with relevant city agencies. The report describes several initiatives to protect the metropolis from the effects of climate change and reduce the city’s contributions to climate change. One is a $1.5 billion program started in 2015 through the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to construct sewers and reduce flooding in particularly vulnerable areas in the borough of Queens.

The city also partnered with the local group WEACT for Environmental Justice, based in Harlem, to increase solar energy use. Plans to incorporate solar energy in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing are in the works.

Table showing reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
According to its self-reporting, the city made progress on reducing emissions from 2015 to 2016. (NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs)

The city fared worse on the transportation target of the Sustainable Cities and Communities goal. “[R]eliable and convenient transit access to employment and other activities remains stubbornly out of reach for too many New Yorkers,” the report notes. The city has put $2.5 billion toward the MTA’s capital plan and an additional $418 million for emergency subway repairs, but that’s a fraction of the amount that is likely needed to fix the city’s beleaguered subway system, and the fight between de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo over who must pay for it rages on.

New York is renowned for its arts and culture, but access to them is not equal. The Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) conducted a two-year study (cited in the review), which found that distribution of cultural assets is uneven throughout the city. In 2016, the rate of cultural experiences in certain neighborhoods was 1.2 per household per year—a drop from the previous year. The city has allotted an initial $15 million to increase cultural assets and participation in low-income communities.

A table showing rate of cultural participation in certain NYC neighborhoods
Cultural experiences per household in underserved neighborhoods decreased slightly from 2015 to 2016. (NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs)

Since the global goals were designed for national governments to implement and measure progress, they require adaptation for cities to work toward them. (In New York’s case, the SDGs overlapped significantly with the city’s own OneNYC plan.) Researchers at the Urban Institute found that 61 percent of the SDG targets were relevant to cities in the United States, and 66 percent of those relevant targets could be measured with available data sources.

New York City gathered more than 70 of its public agencies to “identify gaps and analyze trends”—a feat of coordination and manpower that would perhaps be more difficult for smaller cities with fewer staff to pull off. But Abeywardena said that meeting and tracking the SDGs involves “not only allocating new resources. It’s about re-allocating existing resources.” For instance, the city trained more than 3,200 of its existing city workers in renewable energy, among other courses related to greening operations.

“There’s not a standard way of looking at how you report into these Sustainable Development Goals,” Abeywardena said. The lack of standardization enables different places to fit the global goals to their unique needs and priorities, but also poses challenges for comparing progress across various areas of the United States and around the globe.

In 2014, the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) selected New York City, Baltimore, and San Jose for a pilot program, the USA Sustainable Cities Initiative, to localize the SDGs and serve as models for other cities. Baltimore employed the SDG framework to agree on a set of indicators monitoring access to justice—an area the Urban Institute report called “notoriously data poor.”

Although apples-to-apples comparisons may be hard to come by, Solomon Greene, one of the authors of the Urban Institute report, said that comparing notes can help cities. “We find that it holds a mirror up to cities,” Greene said. “If they are able to compare their progress to other places, what it does is it exposes their weaknesses, and may also expose their strengths in ways that they just simply wouldn’t be able to identify without benchmarking their progress.”

“What we are trying to do is share what we’ve done, in hopes that other cities will also replicate and do a similar project,” Abeywardena said.

The 2018 SDG Index, an annual report card on countries’ progress released this week, revealed that no country is on track to meet all the goals by 2030, and in some parts of the world, conflict has led to reversals in progress.

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