The Pandemic helps focus on Global Sustainability Goals

Scientist Richard Florizone, President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, sees “growing calls across the world for a green recovery” from the pandemic. Economic stimulus will have to be sustainable, he says.

How do you see the pandemic impacting sustainable development globally?

Covid-19 is impacting this field in many ways. My perspective on this is, of course, shaped by the work we focus on here at the IISD — specifically, our threefold mission to advance a stable climate, sustainable resource development, and fair economies. So I would highlight a few key takeaways we’re seeing:

First, resilience is essential. Across the globe, there was a serious lack of planning and preparation for this pandemic. On the one hand, we saw how quickly governments, the private sector, and citizens on the ground can mobilize when needed, but last-minute scrambling is not effective nor sustainable.

What we can learn from this is the importance of creating systems that help us anticipate risk, cope with the effects of a crisis, and adapt to new or different ways of living (and this applies not only to the next pandemic but to the threat of climate change as well). Third, we’ve seen how Covid-19 has magnified inequality. In developed countries, frontline workers in the service economy are among the most exposed to the virus and the least able to absorb its financial impact.

But, the hardest hit will be the poor in developing countries, where already struggling workers don’t have the benefit of social safety nets or stimulus packages. These countries need our immediate support and the good thing is: we have a plan. A study we just released this month outlines how we can solve the global hunger crisis, double incomes for poor farmers and meet our 2030 climate targets in the Paris Agreement for an extra 14 billion US dollars per year.

Second, economic stimulus must be sustainable. There can be a tendency, in these situations, for governments to offer unconditional bail-outs and fund whichever projects are “shovel ready” regardless of whether they’re “shovel worthy.” So it’s been reassuring to see growing calls across the world for a green recovery.

Part of my recent work as Chair of the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery was to ensure we provided our leaders in Canada with evidence-backed recommendations for how to grow our economy and create jobs without locking us into a high carbon future. Periods of high unemployment and low interest rates are the right time for new investments and infrastructure, but these must support the transition to clean energy.

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Periods of high unemployment and low interest rates are the right time for new investments and infrastructure, but these must support the transition to clean energy.

Third, we’ve seen how Covid-19 has magnified inequality. In developed countries, frontline workers in the service economy are among the most exposed to the virus and the least able to absorb its financial impact. But, the hardest hit will be the poor in developing countries, where already struggling workers don’t have the benefit of social safety nets or stimulus packages.

These countries need our immediate support and the good thing is: we have a plan. A study we just released this month outlines how we can solve the global hunger crisis, double incomes for poor farmers and meet our 2030 climate targets in the Paris Agreement for an extra 14 billion US dollars per year.

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A study we just released outlines how we can solve the global hunger crisis, double incomes for poor farmers and meet our 2030 climate targets in the Paris Agreement for an extra 14 billion US-Dollars per year.

How can sustainability contribute to managing the pandemic? Conversely, how can the pandemic contribute to strengthening sustainability?

It’s important to remember that, first and foremost, Covid-19 is a public health crisis and we should address it as such. But our response to this pandemic — along with efforts to prevent the next one — must take the bigger picture into account. As we’ve seen, many of the impacts of the pandemic are tied to sustainability issues ranging from income inequality to resource scarcity.

As we look for the most effective means of tackling the pandemic, let’s avoid succumbing to tunnel vision and remember that we already have valid guidelines: In 2015 The United Nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals, short: SDGs to be achieved by 2030. The tools we’re using to advance the SDGs can also be used to address the pandemic.

In terms of how the pandemic might strengthen sustainability, that’s difficult to say because we are still in the midst of it right now. But, I do believe there’s been a silver lining in how the impacts of Covid-19 have amplified many other issues and led to a great deal of mobilization across the globe. That commitment to change leaves me hopeful for the future.

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I do believe there’s been a silver lining in how the impacts of Covid-19 have amplified many other issues and led to a great deal of mobilization across the globe.

Can we learn something from the crisis management response to the pandemic in order to better address some of the impacts of climate change?

Absolutely. I think it became crystal-clear that we must be better prepared for risk — not just public health threats but the effects of climate change. Through our work with the NAP Global Network, we’ve seen over the course of many years how National Adaptation Plans offer important assessments of the various risks a country faces and can be highly valuable in devising comprehensive response strategies.

Climate change interacts with many aspects of our lives, so preparing for its impacts often helps us in addressing other issues such as housing or food insecurity. These adaptation plans are also country-owned, informed by science, and address the needs of the most vulnerable  communities — all valuable for informing crisis relief and recovery efforts.

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Before the pandemic, we knew all the SDGs were interlinked, but no one realized how much everything could fall apart if everyone's health and life are threatened.

Has the pandemic shifted the strategy behind the timing of meeting SDGs by 2030? Should the targets behind some of the goals be met more immediately than others in light of Covid-19, and which goals should be prioritized?

The world will rightly prioritize the targets of Good Health and Well-being (SDG 3) for the foreseeable future. Before the pandemic, we knew all the SDGs were interlinked, but no one realized how much everything could fall apart if everyone’s health and life are threatened.

Obviously, Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) will be a focus as governments first deploy unprecedented economic stimulus packages, then eventually try to rein in their spending as activity resumes. How they direct their stimulus could actually speed up the timing of reaching certain SDGs. IISD has joined many others in arguing that this funding must advance our just transition to clean energy. We could see quick steps forward on goals touching on energy, climate change, and infrastructure, while others are increasingly threatened.

But those threatened goals must be kept in the spotlight. People who were already the furthest behind are suffering the worst because of the pandemic and the related lockdowns. Our previously failing efforts to Reduce Inequalities (SDG 10) are now even further off course, so closing that gap must be central to every pandemic response policy.

Your organization has reported that sustainability-linked bonds (SLBs) can play an important role in allocating capital toward Covid-19-related relief or recovery measures. Can you share more details about the solutions SLBs can work towards?

The interesting thing about SLBs is that they can be issued by any company or public entity, unlike use-of-proceeds bonds, such as green bonds, where the proceeds need to be allocated to eligible green or sustainable projects.

They are also very flexible sustainability debt instruments, so they can be used to address various pandemic-related objectives. But ultimately the nature of these objectives, or KPIs, (key performance indicators) depends on the type of the issuer.

For example, companies in the healthcare sector could set KPIs linked to the amount of preventive equipment or ventilators produced. KPIs that focus on the recovery of a financial institution could involve the number of loans provided to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the hardest-hit sectors, such as tourism.

Recovery-related KPIs for Social Security Administration issuers could be the number of people applying for unemployment benefits or gross domestic product growth.

The challenge of SLBs is not necessarily the measurement of these KPIs, but to determine a sustainability performance target for these KPIs that is meaningful and ambitious enough.

About Richard Florizone

Part scientist, part strategist, Dr. Richard Florizone has a strong track record of bringing the public and private sectors together to achieve complex goals; a recent example of this is his role as Chair of the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, an independent group of Canadian finance, policy and sustainability leaders determined to ensure we build back better after Covid-19. Richard is a firm believer in the power of partnership to build institutions and communities that are intelligent, inspiring and inclusive.

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