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How COVID is Making the World More SDG-Conscious, But Less Prepared

Updated: Mar 21

By Sarah Zeines - The Geneva Observer - twitter@SaraZeines


March 18, 2021






Like everything else, the pandemic has durably disrupted the world’s approach to sustainability


Last June, The Geneva Observer asked SDG experts to analyze the impacts of the pandemic on the international community’s reference roadmap to a better future. Their responses were a mix between cautious optimism and resilient despair.

More than half a year later, the tone has changed for the better, thanks to a list of groundbreaking initiatives and a global shift in perspective. Far from obliterating SDGs, COVID ultimately has the power of rendering them stronger.


Walking the SDG talk


“In terms of SDG awareness, we’re in a good place,” says Edward Mishaud, Senior Communications Advisor at the SDG Lab, an initiative of UN Geneva designed to help countries achieve the 17 global goals. “In terms of implementation, the picture is mixed. The pandemic has exposed inequalities and fragilities, which have become particularly apparent around the globe, rich and poor nations alike. At our pre-pandemic pace, not all of the goals would have been achieved by 2030. The same is true for the present.”


Though the situation is critical, the SDG expert is still hopeful: “The popular hashtag #leavenoonebehind sums up the essence of the goals. The pandemic has articulated what it means to be left behind in society and this outcome has served as a rallying force for change.” The big issue now is finding resources, at a time when many economies and businesses are in a state of paralysis. “SDG financing remains the missing piece of the puzzle. Many developing countries cannot fund their SDG roadmaps alone, so new and additional resources need to be scaled up.”


Fabrice Calame, the SDG-focused associate to the rectorate at the University of Geneva, is particularly worried about funding issues. “The over-investment in the crisis will most likely generate a lack of cashflow for other SDG-related projects. We are going to come out of the other end of this crisis with a major financial deficit.”





Impact investing on the rise


"There is a lot of support towards encouraging private capital to invest in socially and environmentally responsible projects."

Despite the pessimism of some of her peers, Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal, head of the Perception Change Project (PCP), which aims to grow awareness and initiative in the SDG scope, is optimistic when it comes to assessing the future of SDGs. “The presence of economic lobbies at the table lately is a major change. Impact investing and environmental consciousness have been hot topics in the international sphere for some time. The fact that companies are now systematically considering these elements in their business developments, however, is revolutionary.”


Piers Cumberlege, an experienced investor who helps companies approach business through a sustainable lens, agrees: “What I’ve been seeing since the beginning of the pandemic is more effort to create blended structures, where there is some level of subsidy. There is a lot of support towards encouraging private capital to invest in socially and environmentally responsible projects. The SDGs can provide an attractively coherent framework for analyzing the opportunities and risks of those projects.”


Amongst the recent initiatives the financial expert highlights a portfolio of micro-grid renewable energy systems across five Sub-Saharan countries, or a new sustainability fund, backed by two national pension funds. Both major projects have come into being over the past 10 months. “I am not at liberty to reveal any details at this stage of the process, but institutional progress is underway.”


While ESG-related standards are gaining importance, their implementation is backed by a confusing constellation of norms. With the recent enforcement of the European Green Deal, a regional sustainable investment model is becoming an obligatory reference. Companies and financial institutions must now take ESG criteria into account and respect the set of rules that come with them. “The institutional financial sector is starting to make sense out of the alphabet soup of standards,” adds Piers Cumberlege. The European Union has taken a firm approach in building a regulatory space. There is already more coherence. The large Canadian pension funds are pushing for common standards. The World Economic Forum is driving common definitions. All the big players are trying to move forward with a common definition of ESG. It’s happening now.”


To each his own SDGs


Though the pandemic was not the motor of these major changes, the crisis has brought a new global consciousness to light: “For the first time ever, the entire world is in the same boat,” says Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal, head of the Perception Change Project (PCP). “Surveys over the past ten months have shown us that people have changed their consumption habits. So many professions are disappearing in the process everywhere, but many new ones will appear.”


This new way of living life brings certain SDGs to light more than others. “At the Perception Change Project, we are working on a series of booklets on concrete actions for the SDGs, like for example one released during the pandemic on 170 actions to combat climate change which was done with students. We are working now with interns, who in turn mobilize their personal networks for a new series on 170 actions to reduce inequalities. From what I have observed recently, SDG 13, Climate Action, and SDG 10, which aims to reduce inequalities, are the hot topics for the younger generation. These are the subjects that unite.”


In the financial world, other goals dominate. “They all have economic interests, but some are lower hanging fruit,” reflects Piers Cumberlege. “There are more financially rewarding SDGs than others.” SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, are the most obvious links to profit. However, SDG 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, as well as SDG 5, Gender Equality, also promote economic growth. “Some might argue that gender equality is not associated. I disagree. Gender issues are in the eye of the storm. They are the basis for a more functional system. An example that illustrates this affirmation could be the 90% rate of women in Bangladesh who are experiencing food insecurity. There is a direct link between gender and achievement of all the other SDGs.”


Edward Mishaud notes that SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being, and SDG 17, Partnerships, have reached new peaks, with the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine. “An unprecedented universal cooperation was necessary to get vaccines developed. It is truly impressive.”


New ways in a new world


“The drastic drop in mobility has a huge impact on the environment and also brings a new approach to work dynamics. People are acting now as they should have back in 1992, after the Rio Summit. The pandemic has lasted long enough to persistently change behavioral patterns in society. People will get used to new, better ways of living.”


One point that generates consensus amongst SDG experts is the power of the pandemic in highlighting chronic global inequalities. “COVID-19 has disrupted essential health services around the world,” insists Edward Mishaud, “even in developed nations, where hospitals and broader health systems have struggled to cope with the situation. People have been calling for public health emergency preparedness long before COVID was a reality. Now, it is finally a central topic.”


Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal adds: “We will all have to make sacrifices, especially when it comes to everyday consumerism. My 26-year-old daughter, for instance, has given up plastic completely. The awareness of the new generation brings hope that things can change.”

Fabrice Calame, though skeptical in regard to the achievement of the UN’s 17 goals by 2030, conserves a certain level of hope. “The drastic drop in mobility has a huge impact on the environment and also brings a new approach to work dynamics. People are acting now as they should have back in 1992, after the Rio Summit. The pandemic has lasted long enough to persistently change behavioral patterns in society. People will get used to new, better ways of living.”