Is COVID-19 slowing progress toward the SDGs? Yes, say experts.

Energy

As we move into a crucial decade of action on achieving serious progress on sustainability, many are hoping the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession will serve to reset our priorities toward a greener future in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, many experts are not optimistic about the possibility of a green recovery.

Over half of sustainability professionals believe that COVID-19 instead will slow the rate of progress toward achieving the SDGs, according to a new report, Evaluating Progress on the SDGs, by GlobeScan and The SustainAbility Institute by ERM. Findings from the research also show that sustainability practitioners continue to report poor progress toward each of the 17 goals, as well as on sustainable development overall.

Nearly 500 experienced sustainability professionals in 75 countries were asked to evaluate the progress that has been made, on sustainable development overall and on each SDG; to rank the relative urgency of each goal; and to share insights into the priorities within their own organizations. Experts also were asked how the pandemic will affect progress on the SDGs. The survey also tracked expert opinions polled in 2017 and 2019.

Sustainability practitioners report poor progress toward each of the 17 goals, as well as on sustainable development overall.

When asked to rate the progress to date on the overall transition to sustainable development, more than half of sustainability experts (54 percent) say progress has been poor, with most remaining respondents giving neutral ratings (41 percent). Only 4 percent are satisfied with society’s achievements so far. Those who have the most negative views on progress tend to work in the academic and research sector, with European experts being the most negative.

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Negative expert perceptions of our collective sustainability efforts so far are also apparent in their assessments of progress on individual SDGs, with majorities rating achievements as poor on 10 of the 17 Goals.

Life Below Water (Goal No. 14), Reduced Inequalities (No. 10), Life on Land No. 15) and No Poverty (No. 1) are seen by experts as the SDGs where society’s level of achievement has lagged the most. Proportions of seven in 10 or higher see progress in these areas as being poor — particularly on Reduced Inequalities.

In contrast, only around one-third of experts believe that there has been poor progress on Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (No. 9) and Partnership for the Goals (No. 17).

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Sustainability experts tend to believe that several goals where progress has been the most unsatisfactory are also the most urgent, which is a cause for some concern.

When asked to assess which goals require the most urgent action, experts overwhelmingly choose Climate Action (No. 13) — a goal that fewer than one in 10 experts say we have made good progress on achieving. Reduced Inequalities, the goal with the lowest overall score in terms of our collective progress, also ranked as one of the most important areas for action — along with Life on Land and Responsible Consumption and Production (No. 12).

The perceived urgency of Reduced Inequalities has increased compared to 2019 in the wake of the pandemic, highlighting the unequal impact experienced by poorer countries as well as more vulnerable populations within countries.

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Within their own work and organizations, sustainability professionals are most likely to be addressing Climate Action; almost half of experts surveyed (44 percent) and more than half of corporate sustainability professionals (52 percent) say this is one of the SDGs receiving the most attention within their own organizations or work.

Climate Action is prioritized by respondents across most sectors and regions except the academic and research sector and among those based in Africa and the Middle East, both of which focus more on Quality Education (No. 4).

Far fewer (6 percent) say they focus their work on Reduced Inequalities, despite the relative parallel urgency of this secondary issue. Other goals that are mainly overlooked include No Poverty, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (No. 16), and Zero Hunger (No 2).

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The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have further dampened experts’ views on our collective progress on the SDGs.

Around one-third of those surveyed say that the pandemic will serve to accelerate headway on achieving the goals, perhaps placing their hope in the potential of Green New Deals or renewed faith in our potential to collectively solve great challenges such as developing vaccines to save humanity. But over half instead believe that the pandemic and its economic impacts will further slow our already dismal progress.

Experts in the service and media sector are more optimistic about the potential impact of the pandemic, whereas respondents in the academic and research and NGO sectors, along with those based in Latin America and in Africa and the Middle East, are most prone to pessimism — possibly reflecting the limited resources available in many markets that may be directed away from long-term sustainability priorities to cover more immediate needs.

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This diversion from the SDGs toward other more immediate issues resulting from the pandemic and its economic impacts should be of great concern to all. At this crucial point in time, we need to ensure that our collective efforts on sustainable development are not only maintained but accelerated.

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