UN Sustainable Development Goals could benefit from pandemic

While the pandemic means some SDGs will not be achieved by 2030, COVID-19 has increased awareness.

The global pandemic has drawn attention away from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which are already well behind schedule to be achieved by 2030. However, according to a new report by M&G, while the pandemic spells a setback for some of the goals, there are also a number of SDGs that will be propelled forward by the new awareness we have gained as a result of this crisis.

According to the report, entitled A decade to deliver: The SDG reckoning, 12 of the 17 SDGs are materially behind schedule to meet the 2030 deadline and 10 have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, setting expectations for delivery even further back than originally feared.

This reflects the findings of various previous reports, including the 2020 Social Progress Index, compiled by the US non-profit group Social Progress Imperative (SPI), which recently found that SDG fulfilment is 62 years behind schedule and could be delayed by another decade as a result of COVID-19.

Ben Constable-Maxwell, head of sustainable and impact investing at M&G, said the goals that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic are quality education, decent work and economic growth, no poverty, reduced inequalities and responsible consumption and production.

“Our assessment highlights that greater focus is needed in particular on addressing the world’s social issues. The spread of the novel coronavirus has become the biggest health and economic crisis of our lifetime, hammering home the need for us to redouble our efforts and push forward to meet the SDGs and heir underling targets – before it is too late,” Constable-Maxwell said.

Positive momentum

However, there is also light at the end of the tunnel. While the overall impact of the pandemic has undoubtedly been negative, a number of the goals are likely to see positive momentum as a result of the pandemic, the M&G’s report said.

“For certain goals – such as SDG 3 (Good health and well-being) – our view is that the gravity of the crisis has actually pushed the agenda forward by forcing the world to recognise what needs to change; this is not to suggest that these challenges have been met, simply that they now have the focus they need,” according to the report.

Similarly, commenting on SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), M&G said that “making cities inclusive, resilient, sustainable and – importantly – safe is a key goal for governments, considering that 90% of COVID-19 cases are happening in urban areas”.

The other goals that may see a positive impact as a result of Covid-19 are SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy), SDG 9 (industry innovation and infrastructure), SDG 15 (life on land) and SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals).

Hamish Chamberlayne, head of global sustainable equities at Janus Henderson Investors, is also positive the crisis could be a catalyst for further focus on SDGs and sustainability.

“Instead of undermining it, we are hopeful this crisis will continue to highlight the attractiveness of sustainable investing and how it leads to better outcomes, not only for investors but also for the environment and society,” he said.

“If it does so, there is every reason to believe that the UN SDGs can be achieved within the next decade.”

Decade of action

The 17 SDGs were devised five years ago by the UN as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for the world. They address the global challenges society and corporations face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 SDGs consist of 169 targets in total, with a goal to meet these by 2030.

Veronique Chapplow, investment director, equities at M&G, said: “While there have been hard-fought and tangible advances on the 17 goals and their underlying targets, there is still a huge amount of progress to be made. With a decade to deliver, it is crucial to consider and discuss the necessary next steps for both the public and private sectors.”

As the SDGs celebrate their fifth anniversary, market participants are calling for a ‘Decade of Action’ to ensure governments and private companies across the globe do everything possible to achieve the goals by the 2030 deadline.

Carola van Lamoen, head of active ownership at Robeco, said: “The SDGs provide a North Star for moving beyond the current crisis in a way that makes our societies more sustainable and resilient. Although achieving the SDGs remains challenging, it is a clear call to action for the private sector and one where investors can make a huge difference.”

But she added that for investors’ actions to lead to large-scale impacts, the UN SDGs must “enter the mainstream of the investment space”.

Falling behind

While the M&G report gives reasons to be hopeful, it also highlights three goals which are particularly far from being achieved. One of these is SDG 13 – climate action. While M&G believes this has not been negatively impacted by the pandemic, it said progress remains well behind target and this issue is “arguably the greatest challenge of our time.”

The report allocates a number between 0 and 10 to each goal to indicate if the world is on target, behind or ahead of schedule in this area (5 out of 10 meaning the SDG is on track). SDG 13 gained a score of just 2 out of 10.

“Last year was the warmest year on record, bringing an even greater sense of urgency to the Paris climate deal’s objectives to prevent irreversible and hazardous levels of climate change,” the report said.

M&G noted that although there is now more focus on developing renewable energy infrastructure across the globe, “not enough attention among governments, non-governmental organisations and investors is given to climate action.”

“Investment in resilience and adaptation is crucial, ensuring the right policies and infrastructure are in place to protect against the change that is already happening, but also to prevent further damage.”

SDG 14 – life below water – is also significantly behind on progress, with a score of 3 out of 10. With plastic pollution and continuing increases in CO2 levels, the oceans are likely to see a 100-150% rise in acidity by 2100, affecting half of marine life.

“We need continued and increased investment in companies that can provide positive solutions to reduce and prevent this kind of impact on our oceans, seas and rivers,” the report said.

The third goal with a low score of 2 out of 10 is SDG 15 – Life on land. However, M&G noted that the pandemic is likely to have a positive impact here, highlighting the connection between biodiversity and other global problems.

“For example, the pandemic has highlighted the connection between the trafficking of animals out of their natural habitats to be bred for human consumption, and the emergence of highly-infection communicable diseases, such as Covid-19,” M&G said.