Why the SDGs are a formula for building back better post-pandemic

Sarah George looks at why the Sustainable Development Goals provide a ready-made formula to build a green future that is just for all as we seek answers on how to build back better post-pandemic.

As nations, states, cities and businesses begin to formulate their Covid-19 exit and recovery strategies, many are grappling with big questions around which parts of “business-as-usual” are worth returning to, and which will require radical transformation to deliver long-term resilience for people, planet and the economy.

Thought leaders from across the global green economy have been quick to make the connection between the Covid-19 pandemic and the same industrial and socio-political systems linked to nature degradation and social inequalities – and, by extension, the likely success of recovery plans to considerations of people and planet. Among them are Paul Polman, Mike Barry and Maria Mendiluce.

Earth Day saw these snowballing calls to action formalized by the UN in the shape of a six-point policy briefing on embedding climate action and human rights in recovery plans. We Mean Business Coalition with its 1,272 supporting businesses quickly followed suit, publishing a policy briefing entitled ‘Build Back Better’. In the finance sector, more than 50 CEOs have joined the European Parliament’s Green Recovery Alliance.  

This sentiment is reflected in the public mood also. Among the posts to have gone viral on Instagram in recent weeks is activist Arundhati Roy’s latest essay, ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’. The essay states: “…in the midst of this terrible despair, [the rupture] offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. 

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

But ensuring that this re-imagining results in concrete change will require ambitious, holistic and coordinated action from all key stakeholders – meaning a shared framework is required. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the best candidate, and this article explores why.

The SDGs balance the triple-bottom-line

While hyperbolic articles touting coronavirus as a ‘chance for nature to heal’ may prove a balm for those seeking silver linings in a dark time, the flipside of current reductions in industrial emissions, fossil fuel use for transport and air pollution is a global economic contraction of up to 35%.

As such, many prolific anti-climate figures have taken the chance to pen retorts arguing that, if large-scale redundancies, unprecedented national borrowing and mounting financial insecurity for businesses and families alike are part of what a green future looks like, they do not want any part in creating it.

The SDGs provide a pathway to a future that is not only green but just for all, recognizing the economic and social opportunities of protecting nature, decarbonizing energy systems and resource efficiencies.

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission believed that as much as $12trn and 380 million jobs could be generated globally by 2030 if the SDGs are placed at the heart of all major economic strategies. These triple-bottom-line benefits are already being realized at a business level; research by Trucost concluded that 13 of the world’s largest businesses collectively generated $233bn of revenue by embedding the SDGs strategically in the 2017-18 financial year.

The SDGs recognize the interconnectivity of systemic challenges

The fact that this virus took hold so broadly and quickly has repeatedly been linked to megatrends such as deforestation and globalization, and to unequal access to sanitation and education.

And its spread has shown existing inequalities, with ethnic minority and low-income communities over-represented among those infected and deceased. Likewise, the balance of its economic and social impacts are spread disproportionately. Small businesses are closing while Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has added $33bn to his net worth. Food bank use is up, as are calls to domestic violence charities. Those without housing or access to sanitation are left unable to heed advice on self-isolation and hand washing.

These are to name but a few systemic flaws the pandemic has brought to the fore. Awareness has also been raised around issues such as working conditions in the food supply chain and stark financial inequalities across the fashion sector. 

The SDGs recognise the interconnectivity of major systemic issues, and, therefore, the need for interconnected solutions which tackle their root causes. Implemented effectively, the framework will prevent decision-makers from opting for short-term or sticking-plaster solutions, creating instead lasting change that will remain resilient in future crises.

The SDGs foster community and pre-competitive collaboration

SDG 17, Partnerships for the Goals, is often regarded as the most vital of the framework. Its targets and indicators aim to reshape finance flows, broaden internet access and ensure that key organisations are held responsible for their progress.

However, it is also often regarded as one of the harder Global Goals to enact and measure, given that collaboration and partnerships are harder to quantify than, for example, levels of waste or average wages. As such, anecdotes of this Goal proving a hard sell to those interested only in numbers are plentiful. But that could be set to change.

To weather the emotional storm of the pandemic, people are turning to their loved ones and local communities for support. The Office for National Statistics has been recording a week-on-week uptick in feelings of community on a weekly basis since lockdown began – to be expected amid as growing mutual aid groups, rainbows appearing in windows and streets clapping for key workers. Many businesses are, similarly, proving their social purpose beyond their products. Brewers and perfumers have pivoted manufacturing to make hand sanitizer, fashion brands are diverting fabric to mask production, organisations from gyms to colleges are making their services available for free online. New charity-corporate partnerships are being formed and governments are consulting on ways to protect the wellbeing of sectors, businesses, communities and individuals. Individualism and financial competition seem to have been put to one side as crisis management and community needs take precedence. Perhaps they will never return to the spotlight in the same way.

Beyond speaking to our humanity, collaboration will be a necessity for any organisation looking to streamline costs or operations without compromising long-term value. Against the backdrop of the biggest global financial contraction since the 1930s, organisations of all shapes and sizes will need to look at more agile and dynamic ways of working and ensuring they have the expertise needed to survive, thrive, then absorb any future shocks.

The framework already has cross-sector support on global, national and local scales

Many of the new thinkpieces and policy briefings circulating are founded in existing frameworks, the Green New Deal or Doughnut Economics. But while broadly similar in headline recommendations, they lack a universal foundation meaning the development of further specifics and the securing of buy-in at scale will likely be a lengthy process.

The SDGs, with their 169 targets and 229 indicators, have gained the support of 193 countries, 9000 companies and investors with more than $4 trillion in assets under management - traversing language, political and sector barriers.

So, as we seek answers to the question of how to build back better post-pandemic, we should start with the universal, globally recognised and shared formula that the SDGs provide. Not only do they help us ensure we have a green recovery but one that is socially just and economically resilient.

Sarah George is a reporter and journalist.