World leaders’ Covid-19 recovery plans risk failing to address climate crisis and social inequality, report warns

The world has less than a decade to deliver the SDGs

The call to action is being made by MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the UN Global Goals today, in a report authored by academics at the University of Sussex, including the UN’s former chief environmental scientist Professor Joseph Alcamo.

The report reveals that, despite the fact that many nations have updated their climate targets over the past two years and spoken about the need for a holistic approach to environmental and social sustainability in pandemic recovery plans, the world is ultimately set to breach the Paris Agreement on climate change and fail to deliver many key outcomes for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

On climate, the UN this month stated that nations’ current commitments to the Paris Agreement will only deliver a 12% decrease in global emissions by 2030. A 45% reduction would be needed to deliver a 1.5C pathway, or a 25% reduction for 2C. In other words, less than half of the reductions needed to deliver even the less ambitious of the two scenarios are planned.

While many nations are still working to clarify supporting, short to medium-term, sector-specific policies to lower emissions, the report cautions that decisions could be taken which reduce emissions at the cost of harming biodiversity, human health, and/or communities. Industrial-scale renewable electricity generation projects installed without plans for recycling at the end-of-life, or without biodiversity surveys conducted prior, for example, could be detrimental to other SDGs despite furthering Goal 13, Climate Action.

Aside from the potential risks to social sustainability, nature and the economy, the report states that delivering Covid-19 recovery packages without a joined-up consideration of the SDGs will ultimately be inefficient, leading to overspending by governments at a time of international recession. Moreover, a holistic approach is likely to bring more job creation.

This conclusion echoes that made in a previous report from the UN’s climate science and biodiversity science panels.

A long catalogue of policies that advance both the low-carbon transition and the broader SDG agenda are laid out in the report, including measures to decarbonise public transport; end fossil-fuelled power generation; ensure that new buildings are low-carbon and reduce food waste across the value chain.

The report claims that these joint “climate-SDG policies” could potentially avoid duplication of efforts within government and other organisations and “enable government departments to use their resources more effectively, and free up resources for further actions”. But these benefits will only be achieved with more coordinated and accelerated efforts nationally and internationally.

To that end, the report details a series of 21 stress-test-style questions that policymakers can run proposals past, to see whether they are, in essence, SDG-proof.

The report also recommends that governments develop national action plans which bring together their plans for decarbonising, increasing climate resilience and achieving all other SDGs, while also updating any necessary ambitions. Progress against these plans should be regularly reported publicly, with an international agreement on the reporting style. These actions could be delivered by new national commissions or cross-departmental working groups, the report states. Such organisations should work closely with government departments to ensure that plans are properly financed.

“The urgent action required to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions must not make our world more unequal, so we need governments to combine their strategies for climate action with their targets for leaving no one behind,” said the APPG on the UN Global Goals’ co-chair Lord McConnell.

“Governments, businesses and communities working together in the same direction can create truly sustainable development.”  

Business recommendations

While the report is primarily targeted at policymakers, there are also recommendations for businesses and civil society organisations, as per Lord McConnell’s point.

Businesses are encouraged to properly measure their full environmental footprint, going beyond operations and into the supply chain, considering biodiversity, water, waste and other factors as well as emissions. They should then take science-based action to reduce these footprints.

A similar process should be undertaken for the full social impacts of the value chain, the report recommends. It acknowledges that metrics are less mature in this area than in, for example, carbon accounting, encouraging businesses that are not doing the minimum of complying with international frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to do this as a matter of urgency.

The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) last year revealed that almost half of the world’s largest 229 businesses are unable to prove they are protecting human rights in line with the UN’s requirements.

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Sarah George

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