Two-thirds of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) are unlikely to be achieved due to the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, “it’s time to rethink sustainable pathways for our planet.” argue Robin Naidoo and Brendan Fisher in a new commentary published on 6 July in the journal Nature (1).
The world has dramatically changed since the UN’s 17 SDGs were agreed upon by 193 nations in 2015 as a so-called blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. Certainly, uniting environmental protection and socio-economic development for the greater good seemed more achievable at a time when many governments were flush with cash.
The SDGs rely on sustained economic growth and globalization, the authors write, but the COVID-19 crisis has tipped the world into an economic depression, which has dashed hopes of green investment as funds are diverted toward more pressing concerns.
As cash-strapped nations struggle to support their citizens – many governments are faced basic worries such as food shortages, stalled exports, and the collapse of tourism and other mainstays of the economy – it has become increasingly more unlikely that banishing poverty and inequality, expanding health care, and overturning biodiversity loss and climate change will be achieved by 2030.
Financial investments, which were falling short even before COVID-19, will not be available to boost the industries, innovation, and infrastructure required to make energy affordable and clean. Furthermore, an expected 60 per cent drop in global tourism this year will reduce the global gross domestic product (GDP) and dramatically impact countries where a large part of the national economy depends on it. Moreover, without tourism, poaching has reappeared.
The authors also suggest that some SDGs (around 10 per cent), in their current form, might amplify problems and worsen the impact of future pandemics. Most notably, all areas of healthcare are being impacted by stretched resources and increased pressures on medical staff.
COVID-19 is a ‘stress test’
Growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet and it has long been argued that economies should focus on development (improving well-being) rather than on growth (increasing economic throughput). Some SDGs, including the goal of sustained per-capita economic growth, should be reformed to reflect this, the authors say.
Moreover, they suggest that rather than focusing on many diverse goals, governments should prioritise a few broad strategies which interact positively and could make societies more resilient to future pandemics – indeed, some have become more urgent because of COVID-19. For instance, reducing wildlife trafficking and the supply and demand of illegal wildlife products would reduce the probability that new viruses are transferred to humans.
Other SDGs such as achieving universal health coverage, bolstering the health workforce and strengthening the capacity of early-warning systems for global health risks — could potentially slow the impacts of COVID-19 in low-income nations.
In conclusion: “Every goal and target should be screened according to three points: is this a priority, post-COVID-19; is it about development not growth; and is the pathway to it resilient to global disruptions?”
(1) Naidoo, R. & Fisher, B. Reset Sustainable Development Goals for a pandemic world. Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-01999-x