Sustainable Development During COVID-19

UN COVID-19 Graphic

COVID-19 is an unforgiving lesson on the interdependency between the different elements of sustainability – from ecosystem integrity to healthcare and the socio-economic prosperity that follows. Our reaction to the crisis needs to be similarly all-encompassing, with the Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs) providing a fitting framework, especially on a long-term horizon.

The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report revealed what many of us already knew; we were not on track to achieving the SDGs, and called for more significant and accelerated action to engender the unprecedented changes vital to realizing the 2030 Agenda. The yearly Global SDG Index done by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) reached equally damning conclusions on the political commitment (or the lack thereof), highlighting troubling descending trends in Climate and Biodiversity indicators (SDGs 13, 14 and 15).

Against this disquieting milieu, COVID-19 is now having substantial adverse effects on sustainable development endeavours globally. The preliminary United Nations (UN) response to the current crises chronicled the lack of readiness for its outcomes and, rather blatantly, stated that “had we been investing – [in] MDGs and SDGs – we would have a better foundation for withstanding shocks”. The UN also cautioned of the short-term nature of reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and called for an SDGs focus as we ‘build back better’.

Moving forward, the UN highlighted numerous solid policy recommendations to assist achieve an SDG-concentrated pathway to rebuild, promoting for the enactment of “human-centred, innovative and coordinated” stimulus packages. Rather than resorting to protectionism, the UN has also called for remaining to build on trade as a conduit for global prosperity – and now also as a means for recovery – while endorsing developing countries financially and administratively so that no one is left behind.

In its desired response, the UN has acknowledged that the fragility of supply chains exposed by the crises should be delivered by strengthening approaches that enhance both resilience and efficacy, involving the circular economy and climate action.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has unambiguously focused its attention on the ecological aspects of recovery, calling for ecosystem-based methods to achieving the SDGs, such as tightening policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and shielding biodiversity to contribute to a lower possibility of future pandemics.

This “green position” has also been supported from the big people up top, with the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) recently highlighting the connection amongst people, nature and climate and emphasizing the need for a stronger spotlight on nature across the UN system. This commitment would be bolstered through developing “a common approach to integrating biodiversity and nature-based solutions for sustainable development”.

But, are nations and other societal actors taking up these calls, and are we witnessing any focus on the SDGs and rebuilding on the 2030 Agenda as an answer to the pandemic? Or has the COVID crisis put the last nail in the coffin of Vision 2030, with countries focusing on economic recovery in solitude and turning a blind eye to the interdependency between the diverse elements of sustainability the crisis has unearthed?

Are we seeing a focus on Vision 2030 in responding to the COVID crisis?

In my estimation, the achievement of the SDGs and Agenda 2030 is contingent on the ability of countries to financially support policy transformations. Therefore, the stimulus packages that are now implemented, and how they will be utilized, are perhaps the most important pointers to predict the fate of the SDGs and 2030 Agenda.

In May, the UN Secretary-General released the annual SDG Progress Report for 2020. The report corroborated the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the achievement of the SDGs, predominantly in the case of the least developed and developing states. The underlining message of the report is that “progress is stalled or reversed on inequalities, the rate of climate change, and the number of people going hungry”. The report echoes the previous UN call to action for inclusive and sustainable development succeeding the pandemic, that will defend recent gains, and help meet the goals of Paris Agreement and 2030 Agenda.

As we take stock and critically assess our own relationships with SDG 3 (on good health and wellbeing), it is of paramount importance that we do not lose sight of what still needs to be accomplished in this penultimate ‘Decade of Action’ for 2030 Agenda.

A global response to COVID-19 must, therefore, include reaffirmed commitments and enhanced mechanisms that pressure states to achieve SDG targets. As the UN response stresses, better preparedness for such crises can only be realized through the Global Goals for Sustainable Development - putting us on track towards a more sustainable world, with access to quality health care and more Vision 2030-focussed economies.