Support for the SDGs remains robust. Photo: Handout

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) of 2015 are a set of 17 consolidated targets that form a comprehensive framework for holistic global development. It brings together the five pillars: people (Goals 1-6), planet (Goals 12, 13, 14, 15), prosperity (Goals 7-11), peace (Goal 16) and partnerships (Goal 17).

Although these goals initially had a deadline of 2030, there is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic will upend not only that timeline but also the processes involved in reaching these targets.

One of the major invasions of the pandemic on the SDGs’ structure is because of its differential effects on communities. Quite inadvertently, marginal groups are more vulnerable than ever – women, migrants, informal workers, refugees, indigenous tribes, etc. This in essence comes in direct conflict with the SDGs’ social-inclusivity sermon of “leaving no one behind” in its inception document – the Sustainable Development Goals Report of 2016.

The coronavirus disaster undoubtedly infects the SDGs’ Agenda 2030 at the very core. Hence the pandemic poses a major threat of delaying the whole process, which was already facing tremendous hardships in its implementation in the first place due to issues of scarce financial resources and political will, technological impediments and monitoring loopholes.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a big disappointment especially for a large number of these targets that had a deadline of 2020 instead of 2030. This was mainly because of their interlinkages with the other global targets that required urgent action. Needless to say, the timeline and methods for these targets need to be radically redesigned. For example, just a review of the planet-related goals gives us the following scenario:

  1. Target 12.4 in Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) aimed at leveraging on mutually agreed international frameworks for environmentally sound management of chemicals and other wastes by 2020.
  2. In terms of Goal 13 (Climate Action), by 2020 the developed countries were supposed to implement their commitments in accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) guidelines jointly to mobilize US$100 billion. This fund was to cater to the needs of the developing world and also fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund in accordance with Target 13.A.
  3. For Goal 14 (Life below Water), a large number of targets with a 2020 deadline – 14.2, 14.4, 14.5, and 14.6 – are slated to suffer as well. The seminal 2020 UN Ocean Conference that was supposed to be held in Lisbon in June this year to advance the much-needed plan for science-based innovative solutions for ocean action is also postponed until further notice.
  4. The biodiversity-related targets – 15.1, 15.2, 15.5, 15.8 and 15.9 – in Goal 15 (Life on Land) that were interconnected to the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) had a target year of 2020 as well. In fact there was supposed to be a Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Kunming, China – the UN Biodiversity Summit in October – to adopt a new framework on the same.

Although in the present scenario, SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being) acts as the linchpin that supersedes all the other development objectives across the world, the complex network of interlinkages among these goals will not allow the whole framework to function if one of them falls apart. The interconnectedness of the framework that finds its basis in the impossible trinity of ‘sustainomics’ – the complex interwoven linkages among economic growth, social institutions and environmental concerns – has now become more important than ever.

Interlinkages among the SDGs. Source: Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev, Stockholm Resilience Center

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) has already projected how the Covid-19 situation can affect each of the SDGs, which in turn will have bigger ramifications on the global mechanisms of sustainable development. Almost all the SDGs will be detrimentally affected in more ways than one, cutting across issues of the economy, society and the environment.

Impacts of Covid-19 on the SDGs. Source: UNDESA

The pandemic is also causing the international political processes to change in order to advance the sustainable-development agenda as we see the digital space becoming the new norm. On an intergovernmental level, the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development is also looking into changing its format of meetings, ministerial addresses and other associated events.

The HLPF, which was supposed to be an annual stocktaking process on the SDGs, needs to change radically into a new format to further the global monitoring processes in the near future.

On a positive note, the country-specific attention to achieving SDGs and the political interest among governments at an international level remains robust. In these times the private sector’s and volunteer actions for the SDGs is even more relevant in terms of direct services such as mask and sanitizer provisions, aiding accountability and helping design stimulus packages, knowledge dissemination and also facilitating greater diversity in voices across nations, races and gender.

As the whole world is preparing for a global economic crisis, reflecting on the SDGs becomes all the more important.

This is mainly because the SDGs enshrine the main forms of capital for the long-term economic health of a country – human capital (poverty, hunger, health, education, water and sanitation); social capital (gender, equality, peace and justice, global partnerships); physical capital (economic growth, industry, sustainable cities) and natural capital (terrestrial biodiversity, oceans, climate, clean energy, responsible consumption and production).

These factors are imperative for operationalizing businesses, attracting foreign investments and, most important, increasing the efficiency of domestic economic processes.

While readjusting to the changing world orders after this pandemic, it is of utmost importance for nations to strive toward the SDGs with a renewed vigor, capitalizing on the fact that this huge challenge in the present is an immense learning opportunity for the entire human race in the future.

Although the Covid-19 disaster will delay the timeline for the global goals, the SDGs have to stand the test of time to see how global partnerships in the future can make Agenda 2030 successful.

Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick is an associate fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, Observer Research Foundation, India. His research focuses on globalization economics, Indian economy and governance, and sustainable development.