Expert voices Vol 24, No. 09 - September 2020

Prosperity or planet – do we really have to choose?

We have all seen it: Venetian canals teeming with fish, once polluted megacities under clear blue skies, wild animals roaming empty boulevards. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare that human prosperity and well‑being still come largely at the expense of our planet’s health. But UN DESA’s latest Sustainable Development Outlook report found that we have a chance to change all that. We talked to its lead author, Nazrul Islam. 

COVID-19 has set us back decades on some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Is achieving these goals still realistic?

“COVID-19 has made achievement of SDGs more difficult, but it has not made them unachievable. The Decade of Action launched earlier this year to re-energize and accelerate progress toward the SDGs has barely started. We can still achieve a lot over the next nine years. So, it is still possible to achieve the SDGs if there are the necessary determination and commensurate efforts.”

As countries spend trillions to kickstart their economies that ground to a halt during the pandemic, where should they place their focus?

“The focus should be on protecting a basic level of income and consumption for the vast majority of the population. Poverty must not increase and hunger must not rise. Research has shown that economic growth measured in terms of aggregate GDP increase is not the only determinant of these twin objectives. Distribution is also important. A more equitable sharing of employment and income can help in achieving the SDGs.“

Is it possible to restart the global economy and bring back the lost jobs without destroying the environment and our climate in the process?

“It is possible but will require considerable reprioritization, revaluation, and recasting. For example, the current measure of aggregate output values many activities that are destructive for the environment and accelerate climate change. On the other hand, many activities that nurture human lives and protect environment are not valued or at least not valued enough. Reprioritization, revaluation, and recasting can help in mitigating the current opposition between SDGs related to prosperity and those related to planet — an opposition that COVID-19 has brought to fore more starkly. Much depends on the extent to which the world community will take notice of this opposition and the profound character of its revelation and the lessons that emerge from it.”

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