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Sustainable Development in the Year of COVID-19

The global pandemic has challenged us in new ways. But there have been achievements worth celebrating, and meaningful progress made toward a resilient future.

By Vanessa Farquharson on December 22, 2020

In many ways, 2020 has been defined by struggle, stress, and disappointment. The COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges the likes of which this generation has never seen. But there have also been bright spots worth celebrating.

In March, as the crisis was beginning to unfold, IISD experts revealed how we thought it would shape sustainable development. We listed three distinct issues: 1) the need for resilience, 2) the importance of stimulus packages to pave the way to a sustainable economy, and 3) that inequalities would be magnified.

This analysis shaped our work throughout the year and inspired some of the real progress we were able to achieve on several important fronts.

Resilience Is Essential

The National Adaptation Plan (NAP) Global Network, hosted by IISD, is fundamentally about helping countries build resilience to emerging shocks and stresses. When the pandemic hit, many countries struggled due to a lack of planning and preparation. Developing a national adaptation plan to address climate change ensures that stronger systems are ready to respond to other crises as well, including fast-moving viruses.

This year we were encouraged to see collaborative progress on climate adaptation worldwide, with our experts supporting 27 developing countries working on national adaptation plans. Kiribati and Tuvalu ensured they were meeting the needs of their local communities and the most vulnerable, while Peru is now ready to move forward with a plan that promotes gender equality.

Climate adaptation was also central to an exciting new project that involves a partnership with the Global Environment Facility, MAVA Foundation, IISD, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Over the next five years, the project will use financial modelling and climate change projections to establish the business case for investing in nature-based solutions for climate adaptation. Natural ecosystems like forests, mangroves, wetlands, and grasslands can help build resilience in several ways that can complement and even substitute for built infrastructure. This project will make it easier for investors and government officials to assign a value to such solutions when making spending decisions.

These kinds of decisions are often at the heart of climate adaptation strategies, as we learned during a virtual round table hosted by IISD and the Government of Canada. The event helped facilitate an engaging discussion on using nature-based solutions to build resilience, bringing in a global audience of more than 600 people from 52 countries.

Stimulus Must Be Sustainable

The kind of economic upheaval we saw this year was unprecedented, requiring hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus packages and bailouts. Many of the world’s big thinkers, including finance, policy, and sustainability leaders here in Canada, came together to advise governments on how to make sure those stimulus dollars are invested in a clean, prosperous, and resilient future.

IISD experts played a leading role in the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, putting forth five key recommendations that the Canadian government incorporated into its Speech from the Throne. As well, we brought together more than 20 organizations to launch the Energy Policy Tracker, which provides real-time data on global funding commitments to fossil fuels in comparison to clean energy. Today, it is helping inform research efforts and key opinion leaders, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, along with journalists all over the world, supporting transparency and advocacy toward a clean energy transition.

Inequality Is Magnified

Even before COVID-19, hunger was on the rise. The pandemic made things worse, pushing millions more into extreme poverty and hunger. Perversely, it is poor farmers and their families—those who produce an important share of the world’s food and whose livelihoods depend on food and agriculture—that are among the most likely to experience hunger.

Researchers from IISD, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Cornell University discovered that, for an extra USD 14 billion per year, we could end hunger, support those farmers, and meet our climate goals sustainably. This research—which used a combination of economic modelling, machine learning, and data synthesis—filled a major knowledge gap in the field of agricultural and food policy. The Ceres2030 team behind it garnered international media attention and mobilized an extensive donor community, as well as high-level policy-makers. 

IISD also partnered with Pew Charitable Trusts to launch a campaign to Stop Funding Overfishing. At least half the world’s population relies on marine life as a source of dietary protein, and overfishing puts their survival at risk. Overfishing is also damaging to the environment and to the economy.

Public pressure is mounting for the World Trade Organization to finalize negotiations and reach an agreement to tackle harmful fisheries subsidies. The campaign, with a statement signed by 174 organizations, aimed to let negotiators know the world was watching and holding them accountable. After reaching 56 million people on social media, negotiations chair Santiago Wills explicitly called out campaigners as a crucial motivator for the progress made this year, noting that engagement of civil society in these talks "remains a key ingredient" for their success.

Going into 2021 ...

As we enter a new year, we're conscious of the increasing urgency in the climate movement and the need for action to start matching ambition. There is a great deal of work still ahead, not only for researchers and policy-makers but for everyone—business leaders, negotiators, communicators. The more we can share what is working, the greater our chances of creating a sustainable future.