Heinz Fischer’s speech at the Impact Days Vienna 2019

The Room Sofiensäle

Marxergasse 17, 1030 Vienna, Austria

Friday 11 October, 2019

Heinz Fischer

Keynote Speech

The Relevance of SDGs in A Globalized World


Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour to be your guest today and to present some deliberations and observations to the relevance of the SDGs in a globalized world.

Already the title of my intervention today can be seen an indication for a major breakthrough: The SDGs were adopted in New York in September 2015 – 4 years ago – and today their global relevance is recognized more and more.

Indeed, the globalized world needs global goals:

Sustainable Development Goals.

They are finally based on the human rights declaration of the United Nations, claiming that all human beings are born equal in rights and human dignity.

They are universally agreed upon and support the idea, that no one should be left behind.

This – in itself – is innovative and has not existed to that ‘consensual’ degree ever before in human development.

The SDGs are, in my opinion, a “world governmental program”.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

For thousands of years the societies developed into different great powers and different economic centres, which were always in competition with each other.

Lots of conflicts and wars originated from this competition.

Latest after WWII, with 60 million victims, most of us had bitterly learnt that war cannot be an instrument to solve problems and that collaboration and peace have to take pre-eminence. A consequence was the birth of the United Nations and some years later the birth of the European Union.

What developed in the last couple of years is a global realization that in our today’s interconnected world we need to have in addition to the worldwide UN some “global goals” covering societal, political and economic dimensions to everyone’s advantage.

These goals, the SDGs, were adopted in 2015 by 193 Member States of the United Nations and celebrate their 5th anniversary next year.

It is inspiring to observe an increasing relevance and approval of them. More and more institutions, organisations and civil society groups support the SDGs.

They are starting to feature prominently in media, in newspapers and television. They too find entry into agendas of parliaments and government programs and step by step they even find their way into our education systems.

In several countries, for example in Korea, we can see with satisfaction, that schools and universities adopt the SDGs in their curricula.

But we shall not be mistaken. A long and difficult way still lies ahead, and a lot of work needs to be done. We are strongly aware that from 2020 onwards we have 10 years left to meaningfully implement them.

Nobody should call the SDGs utopian goals and say that they are impossible to implement and transform into reality. The German writer Martin Walser said: “Only the one with utopian goals is a realist”

I also agree with those who say that we need to focus on a detailed discussion process for the financing of the SDGs. It is estimated that until 2030, 5-7 trillion dollars are necessary to translate the SDGs into reality.

Ladies and gentlemen,

One of the most urgent or even the most urgent goal of the SDGs is SDG 13 climate protection.

The four years since the decision on the SDGs have indeed displayed a great number of evidences for the urgency of measures for climate protection.

There are undebatable data about the developments reading the increase of temperature worldwide and during all seasons.

We see that the polar ice is melting, the glaciers are retreating, the snow boarders are going higher up and the sea levels are rising.

Everyone in Europe knows that the last summer was one of the hottest since temperatures are registered and even hotter summers will follow.


And if you look at the entirety of the SDGs, you will realize that most of the other major questions of our time find meaningful reflection: the topics of fighting extreme poverty, health, education, sustainable consumption and production, infrastructure and innovation as well as the necessity for gender equality, rule of law, peace and the partnership for the goals as a whole.

The importance of the SDGs is also reflected in the World Risk Report of the Davos World Economic Forum. This report deals with the question, which risks are most striking and most worrying worldwide.  Even there, the danger of a climate crisis, besides the dangers of war and the danger of social conflicts as a consequence of growing disparities play a central role. The private sector is at the heart of this as drivers of economy shape consumer choices and influence the development of small and large nations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary-General, can be credited as father of the global goals and the Paris Climate Agreement and he led the difficult diplomatic process at the UN to come to a world consensus.

To carry forward his legacy, he founded the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens in Vienna in 2017, for which I serve as a co-chair together with him. We work for the promotion and advancement of the SDGs with a specific focus on women and youth. Gender equality is goal number 5 in the SDGs and this is a subject were everybody agrees that the gender gap must be bridged. But theory and practice, speaking and doing are still in great disparity. You all know the dispute on equal pay for equal work and about the underrepresentation of women in leading position in business and politics. I use this opportunity to call on you to TACKLE this problem by deeds and not only by words.

However, a far-reaching world government program cannot be the agenda of only a few stakeholders.

This agenda needs everybody: individuals, communities, cities, governments, businesses, academia and the non-governmental sector to implement these ambitions.

SDGs are relevant: in an Austrian context, a European context and in the context of increasing global collaboration.

I hope that your respective businesses and entities become champions of the innovative global agenda.

And fortunately, many companies have already realized the tremendous business opportunities that are enshrined in these goals. Also, many Austrian companies are successfully championing the SDG implementation in their respective work and with their Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Reports.

I do not pretend to be a business expert, but I have the impression that many start-ups make it their goal to be profitable in their entrepreneurial action as well as to have positive societal impacts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I just came back from an extensive journey through China, including Tibet, let me also mention that it was interesting and encouraging to see that China is very positively viewing the SDGs and not only viewing, they attach great relevance to them.

In China, economic development is taking place at an unprecedented level.

To give you a little example about technological innovation and the quality of the latest generation of computers: I was very impressed participating in the World Manufacturing Convention in Hefei, China, 3 weeks ago and addressing the audience. The organizers presented examples of most recent technological advancements, as for instance middle class electro cars with batteries and a reach of 500 to 600 km, microchips, robots, drones, etc. Similar to the so called “Einstein computer” in Japan, they had a computer in the shape of a human sized attractive young lady, who was interacting with visitors and answering all sorts of difficult questions. And when I simply asked her how old she was, her outstanding and witty answer was “Sorry, I am a lady and you should know, that it is not polite to ask a lady how old she is.”

Besides being a technological champion, China is stepping up its efforts in the sphere of climate change. It does so with massive re-forestation programs, a focus on clean transportation and smart city planning and far reaching poverty eradication programs. The speed of fast trains is so high, that within a distance of 600 km between two cities, it is faster to take a train than a plane.

In contrast to the United States, China has become more and more a strong supporter of the Paris Climate Agreement. China pressures itself internally to make many polluted urban centres liveable again.

European expertise in green technology is sought after and there is great interest in public transport systems, architectural smart city planning, energy efficient technology and technology that increases industrial efficiency as well as expertise in green tourism.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Globally we have come to a day and age where it is not only a unipolar world, led by the United States, but an emerging multipolar world with currently three comparable power centres of world economic significance. The US, China and Europe.

China is nowadays typically considered the second largest economy in the world. But if we compare the gross domestic product (GDP) on the economically more relevant Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis, China has even surpassed the US economy. Measured in PPPs, the GDP of China in 2018 was 25 trillion dollars (18% of the global GDP). The European Union had a GDP of 23 trillion dollars (17% of the global GDP) and the US 20 trillion dollars (15% of the global GNP).

30 years ago, in 1990, the Chinese income per capita accounted for only 4% of the US and 7% of the European income per capita.

In 2018, China had a third of the income per capita of the US and 40% of the income per capita of the European Union.

So we can legitimately talk about three centers of economic gravity nowadays: USA, China and Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me come back to the SDGs.

It is encouraging to hear that in spite of the current Brexit phase of intensive EU “introspection”, the designated President of the European Commission, Ursula van der Leyen, referenced Sustainable Development in her first announcement in August this year. The Parliamentary elections in Austria 12 days ago clearly highlighted that the topics of climate action and sustainability are top priorities of Austrian voters and a main subject of the political debate.

Where are we standing now?

Every year since 2015 the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network are issuing an SDG ranking, depicting an evaluation on how well European Countries are performing in the implementation of the global goals. Among the 30 top ranking countries only 4 are not located in Europe (South Korea, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore). Number 1 in this ranking is Denmark, followed by Sweden.

Austria was ranked 9th worldwide in 2018 and managed to move to 5th rank in 2019 – sharing this rank with Germany.

Austria wants to continue to successfully grow with the SDGs in mind. The former government entrusted the Ban Ki-moon Centre in Vienna to share its opinion on how the situation of Austria could be further improved.

We believe that the SDGs must in any case be a very relevant part of the upcoming government program – whatever coalition might be getting into office.

We also believe that the Austrian government must support an EU commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas by 2050 and ensure consensus on the EU Long-Term Climate Strategy.

We encourage green finance and environmental fiscal reform, including carbon pricing to ensure transparency on subsidies in the EU and ensure the rapid phase-out of harmful subsidies. We also advocate that the SDGs should be part of all school curricula.

And we find it necessary that the Austrian government reports every second year to Parliament about the progress and results of the above-mentioned and other goals. This should increase the awareness of the public on our achievements and deficits and create certain incentives for government and administration to take the necessary measures in time.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have worked in politics for many decades, as member of parliament for 33 years, as minister for science and research, 4 years as president of the parliament for 12 years and finally 12 years as president of Austria. I know how difficult it is to build opinion and awareness in the public sphere on a specific issue. But the SDGs are truly an exception. Why?

You cannot bargain with the climate and the environment of our planet and you cannot make a policy of wait and see. We have only one planet and no planet B. With the SDGs we are not only in the realm of politics but also in the realm of nature sciences, biology, botanics etc.

Hence, I want to thank you that you are actively engaging in these topics and wish you all the best for your discussions.

Thank you.

© Lea Fabienne Photography