A global roadmap for recovery

The SDGs provide a ready-made plan for tackling humankind’s two greatest threats: COVID-19 and climate change. The solutions are within our reach

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A Roma mother and baby attend a health check at a pediatric clinic in Serbia. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated and highlighted the inequalities experienced by minority groups. ©UNDP/Jodi Hilton

Kudos to the authors of the SDG Action Report for helping us to see the way forward. The world was complicated enough before COVID-19, but became immeasurably more complicated with the pandemic. How can we think about bold global goals when we are in the midst of battle against a virus?

The answer comes in two parts. First, the path to success in fighting COVID-19 has much in common with the path to success in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement. Second, the SDGs and Paris Agreement give a global roadmap for recovery, enabling us to rebound quickly and effectively from the pandemic. 

Whether we are fighting a pandemic, or climate change, or loss of biodiversity, or the scourges of extreme poverty, we face a similar set of challenges of global scale. 

To succeed against COVID-19, we must cooperate globally, since the virus and its new variants do not stop at national borders. We need to mobilize innovations, such as new vaccines and therapeutics. We need social justice, so that we don’t leave the poor to suffer while the rich are able to protect themselves. We need forward planning, for example to achieve comprehensive vaccine coverage in the coming months. We need financial resources, mobilized to face humanitarian crises, buy and distribute vaccines, and propel economic recovery. 

Yet these systematic prerequisites for ending the pandemic – global cooperation, technological innovation, commitment to social justice, long-term planning, and financial mobilization – are the same prerequisites for success in our other global challenges. Climate change too can be faced only with deep global cooperation, innovative energy technologies, commitments to a just transition, planning to 2050, and the mobilization of finances needed for the large-scale energy transformation in all parts of the world. 

We can say, in short, that the challenges of sustainable development require a new kind of thinking and a new kind of policy-making. The essays in this volume make this very clear. Our problems today – whether from disease, climate change, loss of biodiversity, gender discrimination, poverty traps, or others – cut across society and the economy, engage the entire world, and require long-term global and national strategies for transformation. 

There are no easy and pat solutions. The “magic of the marketplace” won’t solve our problems. Nor can any single sector or innovation. Sustainable development requires a holistic approach to problem-solving, one that simultaneously addresses economic, social, and environmental objectives, that calls for unprecedented cooperation across nations, and collaboration across stakeholders, including government, business, academia and civil society. 

This kind of holistic and ethical approach may seem far-fetched. After all, isn’t conflict between nations inevitable? Aren’t businesses committed to profits ahead of societal interests? Aren’t the rich and the poor condemned to social conflict? On some days it seems that the answer is yes to all of these questions, but the important essays in this volume remind us otherwise. Cooperation is possible, and human needs can prevail over vested interests, greed, and the pursuit of power. 

Take the case of climate change, discussed by several of the writers. First, the news is good regarding innovation. Zero-carbon energy technologies, ranging from photovoltaics to electric vehicles, are improving dramatically. We can see the technological pathway to a net-zero emissions economy by mid-century. 

Second, there is a growing movement of global cooperation around the shared vision of reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century. The world’s major economies are signing on to the vision of rapid, global-scale decarbonization. 

Third, even though the mobilization of official financing for climate action has been woefully slow up until now, the world is finally beginning to focus attention on the trillions of dollars of new renewable energy financing that will be needed, and on the role of the multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and regional development banks that can play a crucial role in that financial mobilization. 

Fourth, the major stakeholders across society are finally coalescing around the climate realities. Young people have been in the lead, forcing the older generation to abandon the delays and cynicism that have blocked effective action for so many years. Businesses are coming around too, and when the managers are too slow, activist shareholders are increasingly jumping into action. 

In our thinking at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the SDGs and the Paris Agreement require six major transformations across global society. These are spelled out in the Sustainable Development Report 2021. The transformations include: quality education for all; healthcare and wellbeing for all; clean energy and industry; sustainable agriculture and land use; sustainable cities; and digital transformation with universal access to digital services. 

The essays in this volume touch on all of these critical transformations. They show, in fact, the feasibility of these transformations. We have impressive new technologies, rising global awareness, and ample potential financing if we direct our resources properly. In short, we have the technological and financial tools that we need for sustainable development, if we adopt the proper mindset and policy strategies needed for success.   

We have two major tasks in the year ahead. The first, most urgently and obviously, is to win the battle over COVID-19. There have been four million confirmed COVID-19 deaths by mid-2021 (and many more deaths from the pandemic not properly counted). This scourge must be brought to a rapid end. Our most important task in the coming months is to ensure universal vaccine coverage, while maintaining the other needed public health measures and precautions. 

The second challenge is to secure the path of recovery, not merely to return to the pre-COVID status quo, but to launch a new global trajectory towards sustainable development, including success in the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement. Several important global summits this year will take on the great challenges of sustainable food systems, protection of biodiversity, and climate change. We will have the key occasions, therefore, to win global assent on a common framework for action. 

As an economist, I will conclude this introduction with a call to action on financing for sustainable development. We are a very rich world beset by poverty and self-inflicted environmental destruction. 

The actions called for in this volume are not expensive, especially compared with the costs of inaction. The end of poverty is within our reach, and a safe environment is similarly within our grasp. By pursuing the wise approaches recommended throughout this volume, and investing our resources in those solutions, we can indeed achieve the future we want.  

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