This fund seeks to accelerate business solutions for the SDGs

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The Lagos port is responsible for processing 80 percent of imports into Nigeria. The P4G accelerator will focus on scaling solutions for sustainable business and development across the world, including low-income, high-growth countries. 

The Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the SDGs or Global Goals, were adopted nearly three years ago. But the ambitious agenda of 17 initiatives for economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability is on a tight implementation timeline. The goal is to achieve them by 2030, even as the world careens towards deepening inequality, worsening climate catastrophes, a booming population and dwindling resources. 

To kickstart more action, especially from the corporate sector, a new public-private accelerator program was launched at the United Nations that is backed with at least $4 million annually, with the promise of more funds on the horizon. The initiative, Partnering for Green Growth and Global Goals 2030 (P4G), was formed in September with the intention of helping incubate and scale solutions that could have global relevance.

"To accelerate and deliver concrete results on the SDGs, it is paramount that governments and cities join hands with the private sector through innovative public-private partnerships," said Lars Lokke Rasmussen, prime minister of Denmark, the primary country that has stepped up to fund the accelerator.

P4G is led by the governments of Chile, Denmark, Ethiopia, Kenya, Korea, Mexico and Vietnam along and nonprofits such as the World Resources Institute (WRI). The Danish government has committed to making a $4 million annual investment. Another fund that is expected to contribute is the SDG Investment Fund, an initiative that hopes to inspire up to $5 billion in total investments by working through public-private cooperation. 

The P4G hub will be in Washington, D.C., although the United States is not part of the initiative at this time. It will benchmark the results of the partnership through summits, providing technical support and financial assistance and producing a growth report to showcase best practices for cross-sector collaboration.

Interlocking interests

"Even apart from the altruistic, moral reason to pursue SDGs, there is an overriding profit motive," said Amy Jadesimi, managing director of LADOL, a logistics base for oil and gas companies operating in Lagos' free trade zone.

The base was set up to provide a safe and equitable environment that benefits local Nigerian workers and communities, a model that LADOL hopes to scale through the region. Jadesimi was chosen by the P4G secretariat to speak about public-private partnerships that deliver on energy, water, land use, food and circular economy solutions.

"If you don't pursue the SDGs, your business is not going to be viable 10 years from now," she said. "And mostly for low-income, high-growth countries where the majority of the population will be and where young people will be." 

Sustainability ensures profitability and a better return for all corporate stakeholders, including shareholders, she said. Experimenting to find sustainable business models, however, takes innovation and knowledge sharing between the private and public sector  the goal of P4G.  

Sustainable growth that follows SDG guidelines could create $12 trillion worth of business, according to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, a nonprofit organization that researches the business case for the SDGs. Action against the SDGs could generate 380 million jobs by 2030, with almost 90 percent in developing countries, according to WRI.

There has been some corporate progress since the SDGs were outlined in 2016: Car company Volvo will sell an all-electric fleet by 2019 (SDG 13, climate action); Google is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help cities integrate the circular economy (SDG 12, responsible consumption and production, and SDG 11, sustainable cities and communities); and financiers are pouring effort and investment into equitable energy solutions (SDG 7, affordable and clean energy).

But, according to the 2017 SDG index (PDF), the OECD countries, a coalition of 34 rich democracies aligned for economic cooperation, are in the red zone for many goals. Australia, for example, is lagging on Zero Hunger, responsible consumption and climate action. The United States, meanwhile, performs poorly on unemployment and gender inequality.

According to the SDG Index, this causes a "spillover" effect of exacerbating problems for poorer countries. That's why P4G will focus on boosting solutions that could have a positive ripple effect on sustainable development.

"The Global Goals have enormous potential for everyone for the environment, for growth, for jobs, for business," said Robert Collymore, CEO of Safaricom, in a statement about P4G.

The Kenyan telecommunications company is one example of how a small monetary catalyst can boost large-scale innovation. The British government gave an investment of about $1 million to Safaricom to experiment with mobile transfers of money using a cell phone, a technology it created in 2007, said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI.

He believes that Safaricom's owner, Vodafone, would not have taken the risk if not for the government funds. Now, tens of millions of people use their mobile phones to transfer money through Safaricom's M-Pesa technology, even if they do not have bank accounts.

As a result, in Africa, "there has been a total revolution in the mobile transfer of funds," Steer said.

"In order to make the private investments achieve what's necessary, it's often important to have the government creating the right policy environment, even putting some of their own money in," he said. "It's also important to have the right startup capital. And that's what the accelerator seeks to do."

Public-private partnerships could address, for example, the ongoing issue of food waste — the EPA estimates that up to 20 percent of the U.S. waste stream is linked to this problem. In September, the Consumer Goods Forum, a network of NGOs working with 400 of the largest food and consumer goods companies around the world, including Walmart, Kellogg and Amazon, asked retailers and food producers to simplify "sell by" dates on food labels. The rationale: Conflicting phrases such as "use by" and "sell by" could lead people to toss products before they expire.

"No one company could have done that and no government could have done that because labels are put on by individual companies," Steer said.

From dreams to practical ideas

Urbanization is an example of the kind of problems that P4G intends to tackle. Most of the world population will live in cities by 2050, according to UNICEF, exacerbating water problems, skyrocketing energy consumption and stressing demand for affordable housing.

A potential solution outlined by P4G might include a partnership that brings together city planners, building owners and developers, water and energy service companies, financiers and residents to design a collaborative business model for future housing solutions. 

An overlapping challenge is urban water waste. Leakage loss rates of up to 50 percent of water are common in urban distribution systems, according to the U.N. High-energy water consumption is another challenge. The P4G accelerator might help build energy-efficient water facilities while turning sewer waste into biogas.

Companies that already do this include the Ghanaian company Safi Sana, which builds public toilets in urban slums and collects waste to produce biogas and biofertilizer.

"It's important that people understand how profound the transition is to a sustainable, global system that is multi-stakeholder," Steer said.

While the $4 million annual investment committed at the P4G launch may not be the solution that will solve the puzzle of sustainable development, it is one key to harnessing the ingenuity of public, private, civil society and NGOs to respond to an ever-shifting landscape of global challenges.