With only 10 years left to achieve the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in early 2020, the world was already not on track for the achievement of most Goals and targets by 20301. For instance, before the Covid-19 crisis the United Nations (UN) estimated that without accelerated action by 2030 over 7% of the global population would live below the poverty line, 200 million children would still be out of school, and the number of undernourished people would exceed 840 million1,2. Furthermore, before the crisis, food insecurity was on the rise, the share of urban population living in slums was increasing, and environmental targets were not on track to be achieved1. The Covid-19 crisis worsens the already difficult global situation. The pandemic is an unprecedented health emergency with cascading impacts across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is an aggregate shock to all countries that has exposed vulnerabilities of vital supply chains and fragilities of public services, deepened inequality, and is testing peace and solidarity across geographic levels and scales.
The research and broader international community has mobilized to understand how the pandemic is affecting our societies, politics, economy and environment. A plethora of studies have emerged to gauge the short term impacts of the pandemic on key sectors. The recent 2020 UN Sustainable Development Goals report1 highlights some impacts of the Covid-19 crisis across SDGs, and looks at the data needs to track progress. However, in spite of the global data collection effort, it is only able to measure the “initial impact of Covid-19 on specific Goals and targets.” 1 Recent research has also called to evaluate and rethink how the SDGs are resilient to such crises – and how they could be revised and prioritized in light of the recent developments3,4. However, a holistic, evidence-based analysis on how the Covid-19 crisis could negatively or positively impact the achievement of each target in Agenda 2030 is missing. To fill this gap we investigate how the Covid-19 crisis impacts the 169 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. The analysis is based on a consensus-based expert-driven approach with a structured literature search, informed by previous studies aimed at mapping SDGs interlinkages5–7. The method is reported at the end of this analysis and the full results are reported in the Supplementary Information and summarized in Figure 1.
Negative impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on the SDGs
We find that nearly 90% of all SDGs targets are expected to be negatively affected by the crisis (144 targets). As a health crisis, Covid-19 affects the achievement of the majority of the targets within SDG3 on good health and wellbeing, with particularly severe cascading impacts for the poor, vulnerable and marginalized groups of the society. Exposure to the virus has hit the global healthcare force hard resulting in disproportionately high fatalities8 and straining efforts towards health outcomes. Additional to the direct impact, the pandemic is associated with several other negative health effects, such mental health related illnesses9. With all SDG1 targets on No-Poverty negatively affected by the crisis, the impact on the daily earners, migrants, smallholder farmers, women and children will be severe1,10–12. The World Bank estimates that Covid-19 could push up to 100 million people into extreme poverty in 202013. With the loss of their daily earnings, the poor are increasingly vulnerable due to lack of social security with no health insurance, unemployment benefits, etc. Economic consequences are dire, with the majority of the targets within SDG8 on decent work and economic growth affected. Unemployment is set to reach record highs, with sectors such as the travel industry, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and real estate and business activities most affected14. These sectors are labour intensive and employ millions of low-paid, low-skilled workers and a disproportionate number of young people. The ILO is warning that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy—nearly half of the global workforce— risk of losing their livelihoods15. The crisis is exacerbating inequalities (SDG10) 10,11. Because of income inequalities, different individuals have very different abilities to cope with the crisis (undermining targets 10.1, 10.3-10.5, 10.7-10.c). In fact, inequality has been associated with increased Covid-19 spread16, with a direct relationship between access to basic amenities and increase of communicable diseases including Covid-1917. The pandemic has also made migrant workers, refugees and minorities more vulnerable to discrimination and xenophobia. Epidemics deepen existing inequalities for women and girls18–20, undermining SDG5. Gender tensions and violence may be increased by overload of domestic and care work, quarantine and tightened family economy, undermining target 5.2 21,22. The pandemic consequences will be particularly severe in poor and densely populated urban areas, undermining efforts on SDG11 on sustainable cities and communities. Efforts in conservation work and safeguarding for sites of natural and cultural heritage are being undermined (SDG11). Furthermore, the estimated lost learning in three quarters of the world 23 will widen the global inequalities in access to education between children from different socioeconomic circumstances and jeopardise all targets in SDG4.
International stability and peace-making are at stake. All targets across SDG16 on peace, justice and strong institutions are negatively affected by the crisis. While the UN has appealed for an immediate global ceasefire during the pandemic, there is no sign of a global truce yet 24. Furthermore, the pandemic has obstructed on-going peacekeeping operations globally. Peacekeepers need to be kept safe from the pandemic. Also, contributing member-states are reluctant to expose their forces to military operations. Additionally, the crisis has enabled many leaders to accumulate or grab power at the cost of democracy and individual rights (harming target 16.7). In at least 55 countries elections have been postponed25. Global partnerships as described by SDG17 are expected to face a setback. Resulting economic crisis in high income countries will force an inward-looking approach, limit their overseas aid budget (impacts target 17.2), and reduce their willingness and ability to ease the debt burden of indebted countries (against 17.4).
The goals related to key food (SDG2), water and sanitation (SDG6), energy (SDG7), and industrial (SDG9) services are directly affected. Covid-19 crisis caused rampant supply chain disruptions, including vital manufacturing industries and essential agri-food chains26. All but one targets in SDG2 are affected negatively, as Covid-19 pandemic may add an additional 83 to 132 million people to the ranks of the undernourished in 20202 and worsen the nutritional status of most vulnerable populations due to the disruption of supply chains, loss of income, trade-related deficits and workers movement restrictions - also resulting in a rise in food prices, and food waste (against target 12.3). Economic growth priorities after the crisis might halt progress on water pollution and efficiency (targets 6.1-6.5), on renewable and efficient energy systems (targets 7.2, 7.3), and on the sustainability of the industrial sector (SDG9). By affecting supply chains, infrastructure projects and incomes, the crisis affects the progress on modern energy access (7.1), and possibly energy security27. There is a risk that the Covid-19 crises and the disruption of economic activities gives a reason to justify the extension of subsidies and governmental bailouts for carbon-intensive industries, delaying progress on targets 7.2, 7.3, and SDG13. Furthermore, social distancing imperatives might boost individualized rather than public and shared modes of consumption, against outcomes for SDG1228.
The adverse impacts on environmental targets, notwithstanding some short-term gains (see below) are causing concerns. Covid-19 crisis has already diverted attention and delayed measures to address SDG13 on Climate Action and the Paris Agreement. The effects of the pandemic obstruct global environmental stewardship and leadership in combating multiple environmental crises with negative effects on ecosystems targets in SDG14 and 15. The Covid-19 crisis is delaying progress under crucial negotiation processes, with the UNFCCC COP 26 and CBD COP 15 postponed due to the crisis. Current low and even negative oil prices undermine the cost-competitiveness of low-carbon solutions29. Regulatory actions, such as subsidies and stimulus to carbon and resource intensive sectors along with roll-backs in environmental regulations will most likely delay integration of climate action into policies and strategies. The flow of climate and sustainable finance to developing nations will most likely decline. Finally, the pandemic has resulted in important indirect effects on the environment. In particular, highly increased medical waste is having negative effect on landfills and marine environments30,31.
Opportunities from the Covid-19 crisis across the SDGs
Depending on short- and medium- term decisions the Covid-19 pandemic may potentially push critical actions on the Global Agenda by months or years, or present a window of opportunity for rebuilding our societies towards sustainable development. In fact, while we found mostly negative effects, we also found 67 targets that could potentially benefit from the current situation (ca. 40%). Starting from the environment, transmission and the zoonotic origin of the virus are raising awareness of anthropogenic pressures on ecosystems. Some ecosystems might be benefiting from reduced economic activity, tourism and movement of people, with short-term gains across SDGs 14 and 15. Air pollution in cities is at its lowest level in decades, with NO2 emissions down by an average of 30%32, benefitting health outcomes. Furthermore, studies suggest that human lockdown and its eventual relaxation can be viewed as a Global Human Confinement Experiment to understand the positive and negative effects of human presence and mobility on a range of natural systems33. In the short term, Covid-19 is set to cause the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, with daily global CO2 emissions decreased by 17% by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels34. Many have argued that the dramatic changes could be the starting point for a sustainable recovery, that could benefit both the climate and biodiversity35,36,
There has been an unprecedented level of collaboration in medical research with benefits across SDG3 (except some notable exceptions) while exemplifying the advantages of global cooperation. Medicines and vaccines have never been developed this fast37 - giving a clear precedent on the advantages of global cooperation. Increased North-South and South-South cooperation at the various levels along with global technology facilitation mechanism and coordination to contain and find a cure for Covid-19 (benefitting SDG17) will provide lessons learned for the years to come.
While some industries will be set back, others can innovate and flourish - with examples in the medical and online services and communications industries (SDG9). The Covid-19 crisis might also catalyse the transformation of global supply chains towards shortened, more circular and local models (SDG12) - presenting an opportunity to reduce over the longer term the prevalence of lifestyles premised on large volumes of energy and material throughput28. The crisis gives an opportunity to rethink sustainability and resilience of food, water and energy supply chains (SDG 2, 6 and 7). The recognition of the importance of a functioning water and sanitation system to address the pandemic is supporting advances across SDG6. Cities are already rethinking mobility, public spaces, and services provisions. As an example, Milan, one of the hardest-hit cities, planned to use the Covid-19 crisis to significantly decrease traffic in the long term by installing bike lanes as people return to their daily lives 38.
An assessment of what we know so far
At the time of writing, only a few months from the start of the Covid-19 crisis, the research and international community have produced an unprecedented amount of research and analysis on its effect across all disciplines (Fig 2). In fact, for almost 80% of the SDG targets we can find at least one reference in academic or grey literature providing information on the effect of the pandemic on the target´s achievement. For a minor share of the targets (ca. 15%) we could only find discussions in news outlets on the possible impact, and only for around 5% of the targets we did not find any evidence of a connection. There are, however, disparities across SDGs and study types.
We find that the widest research efforts have been focused on understanding the direct health (SDG 3), subsistence related (SDG 2), and economic implications (SDGs 1, 8 and 9) of the Covid-19 crisis. Also, other direct impacts on the measures that have been used to fight the pandemic have been looked into, with a range of studies appearing on how the crisis affected livelihoods in cities (SDG 11), or how measures affected equality and household violence (SDGs 10 and 5). In some SDGs, the dedicated analyses of international and topical organizations have helped in advancing the knowledge of the impacts – highlighting the value of these agencies in advancing the knowledge in certain disciplines. Notable examples are the role of FAO an the World Food Programme in understanding implications on SDG2 26,39, and of the International Energy Agency in analysing impacts across the energy sector and SDG729,35. Furthermore, the UN, supported by appointed experts, is gathering data to quantify the impacts of the pandemic on the SDGs indicators1. Across the environment-centered goals, while we could find studies estimating the Covid-19 crisis short-term impacts on climate mitigation, local pollution and ecosystems, mostly speculative studies and opinions were available on some environmental aspects (e.g. climate adaptation or long-term effects on ecosystems). Finally, across most targets looking at international cooperation, peace, justice and strong institutions (SDGs 16 and 17) we found limited available studies directly aiming at understanding the long-term effects of the pandemic.
This initial assessment of literature, while showing the unprecedented advancements in science during the first half of 2020, is helpful in understanding some of the gaps to be assessed in the future. Across most disciplines, the focus has been on the short-term effect of the pandemic, while mostly speculative and opinionated studies are available looking at the long-term effects. Studies quantitatively studying the effect of the pandemic on the SDGs outcomes are limited to date due to two main reasons. First, the data challenges encountered due to Covid-19. The global indicator framework for the SDGs is revised annually and followed by data updates. The latest revision was made in the 51st session in March 2020 (E/CN.3/2020/2, Annex III). The lack of basic health, social and economic data has always been a challenge, but the Covid-19 crisis has made the situation worse by disrupting routine operations in the global statistical and data system, with delays in planned censuses, surveys and other data programmes and large geographical disparities. Although the statistical community has adapted by setting up mechanisms to ensure operational continuity, further investments and support for data innovations (especially integrated geospatial and statistical information; and non-traditional data) are urgently needed1. Second, the spread of the pandemic is at different stages in different continents and countries. At the time of writing, countries in Europe have already seen the initial peak in infections, while infections are rising in the Americas and parts of Asia and Africa. Any global quantitative analysis of Covid-19 impact on SDGs will thus provide an inaccurate spectrum of impacts at this stage. A coordinated global effort, guided by the UN and SDSN, will be needed to ensure countries gather the relevant data to fully understand the pandemic´s impacts on al SDGs. As data becomes available quantitative analyses will be direly needed to understand the real impacts of the pandemic on all SDGs.
The choices to make on the global agenda
The nature of the pandemic has two inherent characteristics: first, no one can be left behind, even if a small group is left exposed, the pandemic will resurge; second, it requires cooperation and solidarity in action and response at the local, national, regional and the global level. While this is a major challenge, it is also the core objective of the SDGs, which is a UN-led global commitment. So far, the main focus of the pandemic response at the national level has been on SDG3 (pandemic response), SDG 1&2 (short-term cash transfers, food & social security), SDG8 (short to medium term monetary & fiscal interventions for economic recovery) and SDG9 (innovation for Covid-19 vaccine and drug development). The environmental benefits described above are potentially short lived and might disappear as economies begin to recover. The aggregate nature of this pandemic shock threatens the financing that is critical to the implementation of Agenda 2030, especially in the overseas financial and technical aid to the developing and emerging countries. GDP losses in rich countries40 risk undermining the necessary official development assistance flows to developing countries1 – while projected falling remittances will remove an economic lifeline for many households1. According to the IMF, 170 countries will have negative economic growth in 2020 and will face the worst downturn since the Great Depression 41.
The world after Covid-19 is an open landscape where, depending on decision made at local, national and international level, the world could either use all the opportunities presented by the crisis (some in green in Fig. 1), or get further away from achieving the SDGs. The key risk that the world is facing is that as the economic crisis advances, countries will favour solutions that prioritise short-term economic gain, carbon-intensive investments and isolated sovereign interests. Such a strategy would negatively affect most targets of the 2030 Agenda. International cooperation, targeted decision making and democratic processes are crucial for a sustainable recovery. However, for the last 14 years, there is a significant decline of democracies around the globe42 and this process has been further expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the SDG targets are also likely to be adversely affected by increasingly non-democratic policy-making. Moreover, while the World Bank has already made 160 billion dollars available for the low income countries for the pandemic response43 and the UN has called for a 2.5 trillion Corona package for developing countries44; only a limited debt moratorium has been agreed for low income countries and no agreement has been reached on expanded Special Drawing Rights from IMF. Unlike 2014 when the UN Security Council declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a threat to international peace and security, Covid-19 has not been formally recognized. There is a lack of unanimity amongst global powers, resulting in indecision on expanded Special Drawing Rights, debt moratorium, global truce and lifting of international sanctions.
The international community should instead get together to coordinate recovery efforts that address environmental planetary crises – climate change and ecosystems and biodiversity loss – else a critical window of opportunity to avoid their worst impact will be irreversibly lost45. Sustainable plans could support climate action while boosting the economy35. Shared recovery strategies should focus on vulnerabilities and increase the resilience of socio-economic systems, while addressing preparedness responses and disaster risk reduction for future crises46. Furthermore, picking key action areas for the sustainable recovery with benefits across all the SDGs will be crucial – and could be informed by previous work identifying transformations to be operationalized within the structures of governments47.
Having the past progress on delivering the SGDs been more substantial we would now leave in a more resilient and better-prepared world for the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has highlighted the systemic risks and the vulnerability of the hyper connected transport systems, globalised and high-risk production systems, consumption patterns and lifestyles. As and when countries ‘return to normal’, we should be cognizant of the fact that it was these naturally reinforcing systems that created and propagated the Covid-19 crisis in the first place. There is a need to meet this challenge with greater and coordinated action, that is proportional to the Covid-19 threat and impact and not to maintain the convenient status quo. In the times to come, we cannot afford to lose track of the medium and long-term global visions of all goals in the Agenda 2030. Analyses such as the one presented here are needed at the regional, national and provincial levels to inform holistic recovery plans focusing on all SDGs, when possible also complemented and informed by quantitative data. International cooperation needs to rise to the challenge, with increased support for less developed and developing economies to build resilient systems that are socially and economically inclusive. Strengthening social and physical infrastructure, creating equal opportunities for all, enforcing environmental laws and regulations, enabling technology transfers, and removing trade-barriers for low-income countries can be part of the solution. Furthermore, the crisis provides an opportunity to redirect investments and subsidies towards climate-compatible and nature-based strategies. Irrespective of the monumental challenges, this decade of action has the potential for global cooperation and solidarity, without leaving anyone behind.