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Ilustration by Isabel Ríos

Has Covid-19 Killed Sustainable Development?

The current crisis has shown more acutely than ever that social and environmental considerations are secondary to the abstract goal of pursuing economic growth.

The last few months have been full of images and media stories of nature coming back to life and reclaiming its space as humans moved into lockdown. From the sight of lions on a road in South Africa to a record number of baby flamingos in the Al Wathba reserve in Abu Dhabi, we have been nudged to think that the few weeks of pause from continuous encroachment on the natural environment is going to reverse climate change and halt biodiversity destruction. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth, and in fact, we are now more likely to stop our pursuit for sustainable development, which is meant to be a compromise between economic growth and environmental protection.
To better understand the context, it might help to go five years back in time. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly, composed of delegations of all countries in the world, adopted Agenda 2030. The most prominent element of this Agenda is the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs” for short). The SDGs became a pioneering blueprint for development because all countries agreed to respect ecological boundaries when pursuing economic growth. This is probably the closest we, as humankind, have ever gotten to setting a universal vision for the future of our planet — a future that will, according to SDGs’ motto, “leave no one behind.”
Just a few months later, the climate movement had another success to celebrate — the Paris Agreement, the comprehensive agreement focused on fighting climate change, including mitigation, adaptation and financing goals. The main shortcoming of the deal is that it is non-binding and all reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are based on voluntary commitments of member states. Nonetheless, getting major emitters like China, the U.S. and India to pledge to limit their carbon emissions seemed to be a promising victory, worth the practical limitations of the treaty.
Fast forward five years and very little of this enthusiasm for inclusive and equitable growth underpinned by climate action is left.
Beyond killing nearly a million people worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged the functioning of many systems crucial for the thriving of our societies, such as public health systems, cross-border mobility and education, to name a few. In response, governments decided to step up and the world’s largest economies are planning to provide approximately 11 trillion USD in financial stimuli. However, most of these post-pandemic recovery packages are nowhere close to upholding the principles of sustainable development.
Governments are focusing primarily on reviving economic growth and reducing unemployment, but most of them are planning to do so by investing in sectors with a proven track record of damaging the environment such as agriculture, industry, manufacturing, waste, energy and transportation. Most notably, 69 percent of the money allocated for recovery packages is meant to support these industries. As a result, with little consideration for environmental and social issues, these economic stimulus packages will have negative repercussions for many years to come.
To name a few examples: subsidies for heavy industries will drive up air pollution — which already kills seven million globally every year — and exacerbate the appropriation of land belonging to indigeneous people and low-income communities for mining and logging. Attempts to increase food security by investing in industrial agriculture will further poison rivers, lakes and seas, erode soil and cause adverse health impacts on communities close to heavily fertilized fields. In all of these cases, low-income communities will suffer the most.
If sustainability was on the top of the agenda in 2015, 2020 has made it clear that in times of uncertainty, climate change and environmental protection are of secondary importance. This is visible beyond the recovery packages. For instance, COP26, the UN climate change conference, with its revised submissions from countries regarding their climate ambitions, was postponed until 2021. Moreover, the High-Level Political Forum, the top UN event on sustainable development — usually a weeklong ministerial meeting — was shortened to a few hours of virtual interventions.
The high-level events and expert meetings in the last few months that were not cancelled, for example the UN General Assembly, have been filled with ideas and plans to “build back better,” a slogan that advocates for recovery plans with social and environmental considerations at the core. The question, however, stands as to how successful and genuine such attempts can be. Before the pandemic, we were already in a precarious situation. We are living in a global system that by design does not account for the boundaries of the planet and the needs of the people. The current crisis has shown more acutely than ever that social and environmental considerations are secondary to the goal of pursuing economic growth.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a columnist. Email him at
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