In this interview, Achim Steiner explains how COVID-19 has disrupted the path to meeting the SDGs and what the G7 can do to support meeting them
Has COVID-19 hurt progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals?
People have lost, or are losing, their limited assets to survive: 50% of the world’s population has no social protection. The economic impact of COVID-19 is as devastating as the health impact. Many least developed countries and small island developing states have exhausted their public finance reserves and their ability to borrow is severely compromised. The United Nations Development Programme projects that one billion people could be living in extreme poverty by 2030 – a quarter as a direct result of the pandemic – unless action is taken now. Much depends on whether the G7, the G20, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and private creditors come together so the required level of crisis management funding and stimulus packages emerge. People living in the world’s least developed countries would greatly benefit from this enhanced investment climate.
If the DNA of a green recovery is inserted into stimulus packages, it will expand access to catalytic public financing that accelerates the implementation of the SDGs. Indeed, given that we’re now seeing some significant green recovery commitments, there are reasons to be positive about our ability to take the level of climate action we now need. If we maintain this momentum, this could help us to get closer to the Paris Agreement targets than previously anticipated.
Has this altered the path for reaching the SDGs?
Addressing key areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality, electricity access and the clean energy transition have all been disrupted. The initial phases of the stimulus packages and government capital mobilisation understandably focused on responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project points out that only 18% of announced recovery spending can be considered green to date. That is not a full transition towards a green recovery, but it is significant.
There’s a danger that if the next recovery and stimulus packages still reflect crisis management, it will set back progress on the SDGs. The question is how countries can take advantage of these once-in-a-generation finance packages to drive transformational change in key areas such as renewable energy infrastructure or healthcare. This is a time of choices that will affect the well-being of people and the planet for generations to come. The SDGs represent a compass to guide us as
we emerge from this crisis.
Is it time to revise the SDGs?
No. We spent years negotiating a global agenda that brings us together on the major risks to our common future. The SDGs are an enabling, unifying framework that applies to every country.
My greatest concern would be losing this tool for collective, synchronised action and unravelling these mutually reinforcing goals. They are precisely what we need right now to invest smartly and address climate change. They can also help us to make progress in, for instance, expanding access to clean energy – which in turn gives women access to clean cooking, which allows children to learn, and powers our industries and growing urban cities.
The SDGs are holding us together at this challenging moment. This extraordinary set of goals is, as former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said, a declaration of interdependence.
How will the G7’s support help?
The way out of this crisis is that either we do it together or none of us will do it alone. That includes financing for development, which has been inadequate to the point of risking both the recovery and the containment of the virus. The Debt Service Suspension Initiative provides some relief and the IMF and World Bank have taken important first steps. But half a dozen countries are in debt default, 72 face debt distress and a quarter of them are not even included in the DSSI.
We must move from crisis management mode into investment mode. However, I don’t think we have passed the test in collectively mobilising financial support for developing countries in distress. On humanitarian funding, at a time when 80 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, several countries have cut their aid. But optimism is the last thing you lose. So, I hope by the Cornwall Summit, we’ll have recognised we cannot turn our backs on the most vulnerable and marginalised – including people in crisis or conflict.
And on climate change?
All countries must raise their ambition to align with where the science tells us we need to be. UNDP is currently supporting 118 countries to enhance their nationally determined contributions through our Climate Promise. This is the world’s largest offer of support for enhancing countries’ climate pledges. We’re tackling decarbonisation as a developmental reality. Through NDCs, we’re helping to eradicate poverty, close gaps in gender equality, and expand energy access, while boosting economic systems and restoring degraded lands – all at the same time.
As we work towards the Glasgow climate conference, we are helping countries to significantly raise their ambitions, also a critical element of the SDGs. And it is vital for countries to believe in each other’s commitment, willingness and ability to move forward.
What do you hope the leaders do at Cornwall to get the SDGs back on track?
This is a moment of leadership. Had we acted early, we would not now be living with wealth determining access to vaccines. Indeed, it took a crisis to spur the world into action. There are lessons to be learned. The G7 leaders in Cornwall, despite differences and different realities at home, must provide a clear vision of what a greener, more sustainable world could look like. In doing so, we will not be blindly optimistic for the future – but optimistic in the ability of global leaders to change the future.