Interconnected goals

COVID-19 has shown the SDGs are a solution to, not a casualty of, the current crisis, but only if they are taken as an interconnected strategy for transformation

23rd October 2020

Seoul, South Korea, Nam-poong (89) and Jang Yoon-hui (80) dance in a park after their dance club was closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of the OECD countries, South Korea has been rated as the best-prepared to face an epidemic and is also progressing strongly towards its SDG targets. © Reuters/Minwoo Park

Interconnected goals

COVID-19 has shown the SDGs are a solution to, not a casualty of, the current crisis, but only if they are taken as an interconnected strategy for transformation

By Enyseh Teimory, Communications Officer, United Nations Association – UK

We have heard time and again during the COVID-19 crisis that this pandemic has shone a light on the fault lines in our global system and laid bare the enduring inequalities that exist among and between our communities. COVID-19 knows no borders and the reality that our world is deeply interconnected has never been more evident. We have seen in the face of global crises, global solutions are needed more than ever.

At the heart of the 2030 Agenda is the notion that collective action can ensure that ‘no one is left behind’. COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the state of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by world leaders just five years ago. There have been calls to ‘revise’ and ‘reset’ the SDGs, and it has been suggested that the targets set five years ago are outdated, incompatible with the political and economic state of our world today. But, as argued in the Nature article, ‘Speaking truth to power about the SDGs’, the targets are still affordable, and critics have not demonstrated any technical or operational barriers. The SDGs still provide the framework for transformation. What is lacking is political commitment and accountability.

Holistic transformation
At their core, the SDGs seek to redress the fundamental imbalances of our global system, and in doing so ensure that quality of life and dignity for all is no longer a game of geographical chance. If this agenda is faltering, as recent reports indicate, it is because the same imbalances the SDGs seek to redress are undermining this collective process.

And this is just one way in which the sustainable development agenda is fundamentally interconnected. The devastating consequences of COVID-19 further demonstrate that holistic policies that harness this interconnectedness will be required to shape the architecture of a post-COVID recovery. This necessity was readily apparent even before COVID-19, and has been evidenced by research such as the 2017 report from the International Science Council, A Guide to SDG Interactions: from Science to Implementation. But, as our case studies show, the case is now even more clear.

The recent Sustainable Development Report 2020 (SDR2020) highlights how far the pandemic has set the world back on its path to achieving the targets of the SDGs. Decades of positive action are at risk of being undone. For example, data indicates that poverty – the very first goal – is on the rise as a result of the pandemic and could increase by as much as 8 per cent, the first time in three decades that global poverty has increased.

It is not only the scale of our response that needs to change. Various reports have highlighted that it is unhelpful to assume that the SDGs are a project dependent solely on financing. Instead Agenda 2030 is predicated on the fact that sustainability is built, not bought. More money is needed, but the ends to which it is used are as important as the quantities in which it
is available.

COVID-19 has made this clear, “notably in high-income countries that were thought best prepared to face epidemics”, in the words of SDR2020. This has been exemplified in the devastating figures from the United States, a country that spends nearly 20 per cent of its GDP on health has had one of the least effective and deadly responses to COVID-19.

As of writing October 2020, the US has had more than 8 million confirmed cases, and over 200,000 deaths. In comparison, South Korea, which spends around 8 per cent of GDP on health, has had approximately 25,000 cases and fewer than 500 deaths. The SDR2020 Pilot COVID-19 Index for OECD countries ranks South Korea number one, whereas the US ranks 28. Their reporting also shows South Korea on a positive trajectory on more SDG targets. Clearly, a holistic societal transformation based around the SDGs is worth many hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending.

Indeed, if progress towards the SDGs in the last five years had been on target, responses to contain and control the outbreak and its impacts could have been swifter and more effective. This is evidenced in part in the SDR2020’s reporting that Asian countries have made the most progress in the last five years. It was those countries that have responded to COVID-19 most effectively.

By recognising the interrelatedness of the SDGs more cogently in policy and practice, there is the potential for action at local, national and international levels to better mobilise across sectors and develop integrated approaches to targets. Interconnectivity doesn’t just transmit risk, it can create synergies: see Ben Donaldson’s focus below on how the response to COVID-19 impacted rates of air pollution in London, and more widely the short-term climate relief that has been observed in different forms across the planet. National lockdowns caused great, if necessary, hardship but also demonstrated the viability of more sustainable methods of living and working, leading to observable changes to local environments.

The consequences of taking positive actions for our planet – and finding practical responses such as the kilometres of new cycle paths that have been created – reminds us that one of the primary benefits of the SDGs as an interconnected system of responses is the positive feedback loops that this creates.

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far has demonstrated that the roadmap set out in 2015 is the best guide we have to not only realise a sustainable and equitable global future that protects people and planet, but also tackle and prevent crises of this very nature. As the latest SDG report notes, the SDGs can “frame long-term strategies towards more resilient and sustainable societies”. In doing so we will not only build back more sustainably, fairly and equitably, but with renewed momentum towards achieving these vital targets.