Quo vadis sustainable development?
In 2015, the United Nations launched the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with high hopes. There are 17 goals spanning the wide gamut of challenges afflicting people and planet. Years before their target completion in 2030, the pandemic threatens to undo years of progress.
Recent research is beginning to shed light on the impacts of the pandemic on the SDGs. As might be surmised, COVID-19 would derail a number, if not most, of the 17 goals. A comprehensive review of peer-reviewed literature globally by Wang and Huang (Environmental Research, 2021) revealed that the pandemic negatively impacted all SDG goals. What is surprising is that the pandemic response could also facilitate the pursuit of at least some of the SDG goals.
On threats to the goals, under SDG8 (economic growth), the UN estimates that an equivalent of 250 million full-time jobs were lost due to the pandemic, while the World Trade Organization reports that the global economic growth rate declined by 3 percent. In the Philippines, the National Economic and Development Authority estimates the cost of the pandemic for the next 40 years would be a staggering P41 trillion pesos. In 2020 alone, the economy contracted by almost 10 percent. All these statistics translate to massive loss of income and livelihoods.
Under SDG4 (quality education), the UN estimates that COVID-19 has wiped out 20 years of education gains, and more than 100 million children fell below reading standards worldwide. Amidst one of the world’s longest lockdowns, it will take years, if not decades, for us to fully comprehend how distance learning from their homes would shape students in the country.
On the other side, the pandemic may have given some breathing spell to the environment and natural ecosystems because of the “anthropause.” For example, related to SDG13 (climate action), greenhouse gas emissions dropped by about 5 percent in 2020, the first time it did so. However, it is projected that global emissions returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.
While the pandemic has unleashed untold sufferings, it also provides an opportunity to pursue our aspiration to develop sustainably. First, the massive investments being funneled as part of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts can be simultaneously used to attain the SDGs. For instance, by prioritizing clean technologies and green jobs, we can get closer to several SDGs.
Second, the global response to COVID-19 has shown that given the right incentive, the scientific community can be mobilized to help solve humanity’s most taxing problems. The development of the COVID-19 vaccines in record-time is breathtaking. Imagine if even a fraction of that energy can be mobilized to tackle hunger or global warming.
As we seek to end the pandemic and recover from its ravages, may we not squander the opportunity to advance our sustainable development agenda.
Dr. Rodel Lasco is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/)
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