“The global coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused unimaginable devastation and hardship, has brought our way of life to an almost complete halt. The outbreak will have profound and lasting economic and social consequences in every corner of the globe,” says United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen.
The pandemic has exposed that gains made to address poverty, hunger, good health and well-being may face serious setbacks, unless the global community also urgently addresses the global environmental threats that have similar capacity to gravely undermine the systems that enable humanity and the planet to survive and thrive.
Future-proofing sustainable recovery and sustainable development is only possible when sound environmental responses, plans and policies are given the importance they deserve. As UNEP joins the wider international community by mobilizing immediate emergency health, economic and security responses, here are four Sustainable Development Goals that will be vital for a truly sustainable recovery.
Climate Action (Goal 13)
The climate crisis may be seen as a slower moving crisis than the speed of this global pandemic, but it’s the long-term effects are likely to be far more threatening. Runaway global warming is something we do not have the science, technology or funding to solve. Without additional commitments to decarbonization, the planet is on track for a 3.2 degree global temperature rise and beyond. This is linked to an increased likelihood of pandemics, extreme weather events, droughts, flooding and widespread destabilization of global food, economic and security systems. Unchecked global warming will undo gains to address almost every sustainable development goal. It will undo economic recovery.
Today, however, global warming can be limited. As plans are formulated to help countries and communities rebuild their economies and societies, this is an opportunity to embrace renewable energy, green technology and sustainable new sectors that put the planet on a fast-track path to decarbonization.
UNEP is supporting national, regional and sub-regional policymakers and investors and to green fiscal stimulus packages and financing. UNEP is helping to prioritize “green and decent” jobs and income, investments in public wealth and social and ecological infrastructure, advance decarbonized consumption and production and drive forward responsible finance for climate stability.
The work focuses on sectors critical to building back a strong economy: energy transition, buildings and construction, food systems, waste, and mobility, enabling the world to establish the next generation of sustainable and productive infrastructure.
It includes efforts to make trade more climate resilient and sustainable and build on lessons learned from the policies of the Global Green New Deal. UNEP is also continuing to support ongoing country actions on climate change, repurposing energy, cooling, nature-based solutions and recovery investments to align with the Paris Agreement, in collaboration with UNDP and other partners to ensure recovery plans reduce future risks from climate and nature breakdown.
UNEP is committed to supporting member states to identify and facilitate these opportunities and to support successful outcomes at the next Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in 2021, and the broader 2030 agenda.
Life on Land (Goal 15)
Diseases passed from animals to humans, zoonoses such as COVID-19, will continue to rise, as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity. Degraded habitats may encourage more direct animal-human interaction, rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases, as pathogens spread easily to livestock and humans.
To prevent further pandemic outbreaks both global destruction of the natural habitats for unsustainable farming, mining and housing must move to sustainable pathways. It is vital that governments, the private sector and civil society build back better by working with, not against the environment in order to manage and create resilience to future systemic threats.
UNEP is providing insight into the root causes of zoonotic disease transmission to inform policymakers how to better protect their populations by understanding the threats of unchecked environmental destruction. UNEP in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Convention of the Biological Diversity is assisting governments to develop and/or strengthen their biosafety and biosecurity policy and regulatory measures in order to detect, prevent, control and manage zoonotic pathogens. UNEP remains committed to supporting countries to ensure ambitious outcomes at the Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP15) which is now expected to take place in 2021.
Life below water (Goal 14)
The ecosystems that sustain and protect life are just as vital below water as they are on land. The decline and degradation of natural marine, coastal and freshwater ecosystems, and their biodiversity, combined with increasing ocean warming, ocean acidification and widespread pollution, presents a crisis of just as serious concern.
Humans rely on these ecosystems for coastal protection, medicines, industry and food. The sustainability of global fish stocks has plummeted in the previous few decades. Marine genetic resources, among others, are used for pharmaceutical purposes including anti-viral effect, and conservation of marine ecosystems assures their conservation. Excessive nutrients runoff is also an issue which can lead to eutrophication, harmful algae blooms as well as potential increase in the number of dead zones, all of which can compromise the production and conservation of vital resources.
As waste often ends up in oceans and other sources of water, UNEP’s immediate guidance on safe chemicals and waste management considering the sudden increase in toxic medical waste, including single-use plastic waste, due to COVID-19, is as important to this goal as to goal 15. UNEP is supporting countries to ensure opportunities of the sustainable blue economy are recognized and included in post-COVID-19 economic recovery. UNEP also remains committed to supporting ambitious outcomes for sustainable blue economies and ecosystem protection at the UN Oceans Conference, now postponed from its original date of June 2020.
Responsible consumption and production (Goal 12)
Unsustainable production and consumption is perpetuated by brown financing, investments and lifestyle choices. Such practices have led to a depletion of natural resources, disruption of ecosystems, resource and carbon-intensive economies and infrastructures, as well as environmental health issues and diseases.
This pandemic has shown where many of the weaknesses in our systems lie. It has proved that responsibilities to act extend from governments to private sector to civil society and individuals if we are to successfully meet environmental goals. Closed borders, availability of commodities, and confinement have forced behaviour changes worldwide.
Some of the changes have accelerated new and emerging sectors that support responsible consumption, such as online working or locally sourced production. As people return to work and schools reopen, some of these positive changes can be retained. Employers – public and private – and individuals have now tested alternative ways of working, studying and consuming at a scale that can durably leap-frog some transitions to more responsible consumption and production.
UNEP is working with partners for recovery policies and investments to incentivize circularity, an inclusive sustainable consumption driven approach and the aligning of public and private finance with shifts towards more sustainable and resilient economies and societies. This is a real opportunity to meet that demand with stimulus packages that include renewable energy, smart buildings and cities, green and public transport, sustainable food and agriculture systems, and lifestyle choices.
Taking action today to protect ecosystems on land and in water, combating global heating and including “safety first” biosecurity measures and environmental safeguards is critical. Ensuring that the knowledge and commitment to responsible consumption and production extends across all pillars of societies will be fundamental building blocks to future-proof the progress and success of all other sustainable development goals.
Nature is in crisis, threatened by biodiversity and habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution. Failure to act is failing humanity. Addressing the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and protecting ourselves against future global threats requires sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste; strong and global stewardship of nature and biodiversity; and a clear commitment to “building back better”, creating green jobs and facilitating the transition to carbon neutral economies. Humanity depends on action now for a resilient and sustainable future.