Has Expo 2020 Dubai succeeded in keeping the UN Sustainable Development Goals alive?

Anyone who visited Expo 2020 Dubai – or engaged with its content online – will know that the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remained at the heart of the megaevent.

Indeed, the UN recognised the potential of Expo 2020 from the outset. The global organisation’s UAE branch recruited five UN Volunteers to support its presence on the ground, all of whom operated from the UN Hub in Expo’s Mission Possible – Opportunity Pavilion.

Few would deny that the Middle East’s first ever World Expo managed to breathe life into the UN’s ‘Decade of Action’, which is focused on achieving all 17 SDGs by 2030. In fact, owing to the sheer volume of SDG-focused discussions, activities and events that took place during the six months of Expo 2020, there are simply too many to mention here.

Nevertheless, here are a few of my personal highlights…

SDGs in focus

UN Day, which was celebrated on the Stage of Nations at Expo’s Al Wasl Plaza in October 2021, opened with a curated group of photos from ‘TheWorldWeWant’ exhibit – a collection of more than 50,000 images from over 130 countries, which were also showcased at the Opportunity Pavilion Plaza near the UN Hub.

At the same time, the ‘UN Day Run’ saw participants from more than 20 nations participate to raise awareness of the 17 SDGs, while monitors around the Expo site were ‘taken over’ in a bid to promote collective action among visitors.

Expo 2020’s Global Goals Week, meanwhile, featured more than 20 special events – not to mention an array of on-site activations – that turned the megaevent into a global stage for the SDGs.

More generally, everyone who visited the UN Hub during Expo 2020 had the opportunity to engage with a broad range of panel discussions, art exhibits and film viewings centred on the fulfilment of the global goals.

From 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, Expo 2020 Dubai succeeded in shining a spotlight on the SDGs in front of a global audience of millions.

The next chapter

But what happens next? Advantageous though the event was for these goals, there is much work to be done before they are achieved. The question now is whether Expo 2020 Dubai will leave a tangible legacy for the realisation of global SDGs.

Well, first off, we must take into account the unparalleled platform that the event provided for these issues. The megaevent secured the highest ever level of international participation in the history of World Expos, hosting more than 200 participating countries and organisations while attracting approximately 200 million virtual visits, according to Maha Al Gargawi, Senior Vice President of Political Affairs at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Overall, Expo 2020 hosted 24.1 million visits during its six months. One million of these were school visits and 107,000 were made by people of determination. Almost a third of those who visited came from overseas, with 178 countries represented. What’s more, upwards of 5.8 million people around the world are have been positively impacted by Expo Live grants, the vast majority of which are related to the fulfilment of the UN SDGs.

Any level of exposure for SDGs is clearly positive news when it comes to raising awareness and driving behavioural change. The fact that so many participants and visitors have come together to engage constructively with these issues will no doubt play a significant role in their ultimate fulfilment.

A lasting and meaningful legacy

Equally important is Expo 2020’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’. The event brought together policymakers, businesspeople, academics and innovators from around the world, empowering them to forge lasting connections in the spirit of global collaboration.

And make no mistake, these connections look set to have a positive impact on SDGs for many years to come. Here are just a few…

The megaevent saw the UAE and France commit to extending further assistance to developing nations working to achieve their Paris Agreement objectives, as well as increased support for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Solar Alliance.

In collaboration with IRENA, the UAE also launched its ‘Beyond Food’ initiative, which aims to bridge the investment gap for vulnerable communities while increasing crucial access to sustainable energy for cooking.

The UAE and Israel’s Ministries of Energy, meanwhile, signed a historic memorandum of understanding (MoU) to strengthen relations within the energy sector at the world’s fair. Also during the event, Masdar, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), TAQA and Mubadala Investment Company joined forces to support the UAE’s goal of achieving net-zero carbon by 2050.

In addition, Expo 2020 set the stage for the World Government Summit, where the Global Energy Forum – organised by the Atlantic Council – focused on ensuring our transition to sustainable resources receives adequate funding.

Ugandan investment in renewable energy projects worth more than $650 million was secured during the event, and Expo 2020 also redoubled collective efforts to involve more women in policymaking and leadership positions.

The ball is now in our court

While partnerships and commitments such as those outlined above can be difficult to quantify, I would argue that Expo 2020 Dubai has done more to promote the global SDGs than any other event or campaign in history.

The important thing to remember is that whether or not this legacy is fulfilled now rests solely in our hands. We must take what we have learned from Expo and transform it into positive, meaningful action for our planet.

Only if we fulfil our individual SDG-related responsibilities will Expo 2020 Dubai’s full potential be truly realised.