Published on 3 November 2020
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Pandemic Recovery, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Law

Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger shares the urgent messages she delivered at the Leverhulme Lecture on post-pandemic law and policy innovations to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

We are living in a convergence of crises. Rapid and dangerous climate change, biodiversity loss and the continued destruction of critical ecosystems are exacerbating global poverty, undermining food security and threatening livelihoods around the world. Across 193 UN member States, pressure is rising on already-limited human, financial and natural resources; intensifying the need for prompt and effective public policy responses, backed by legal and institutional reforms, to foster rather than frustrate global sustainable development.

For at least half a century, the global community has struggled – despite numerous initiatives – to implement a coordinated strategy for delivering sustainable, inclusive prosperity. In 2015, as part of new global cooperation agenda towards 2030, countries adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 time-bound targets applying a common framework and a succinct set of public policy priorities for all countries. Of course, as critics underline, each SDG is aspirational and strictly non-binding in nature. However, like other aspirations such as world peace, or human rights, the SDGs are not legally irrelevant.

Indeed, law can help – or hinder – every target of the global Sustainable Development Goals. An entire network of increasingly specific international accords on sustainable development have been adopted in recent decades, setting cooperation arrangements in place that aim to achieve the key targets of the SDGs. Further, efforts to achieve each SDG target are also facilitated by a toolkit of related domestic legal obligations, regulations and institutions in each country, and also by important customary norms and ethics. Unfortunately, preventing real, deeply required progress on all 17 SDGs (and on compliance with the hundreds of binding international agreements that support them) are two seemingly impossible, but very practical barriers– we lack the resources, and we lack the capacity.

Taking them in turn – the gap in human and financial resources, until lately, seemed unsurmountable. Collectively, achievement of the 169 SDG targets has been estimated by the UN to require an investment of £2.5-3.4 trillion GBP per year in developing countries, simply to cover costs of basic infrastructure, food security, health and education, and climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. For the most poor ‘bottom billion’ least developed countries alone, the gap is over £700 billon GBP.

As countries consider new post-pandemic economic stimulus measures, the world’s SDGs represent the global investment opportunity of a millennium. Under the Leverhulme Trust award, our new research is tracing economic stimulus measures as opportunities to scale up investment, restarting economies, but also ‘building forward’ towards achievement of the SDGs.

We are finding that the situation is far from hopeless. Indeed, there are many examples of economic stimulus that has real potential to deliver both our global priorities, and achieve our treaty commitments.

For instance, there is a pressing need to support SDG 13 (climate action), implement key binding international obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Paris Agreement. As one example, Canada is committing £1.5 billion GBP over five years towards climate action: new jobs from climate-related technologies, energy efficient innovations and building retrofits, zero emission vehicles and infrastructure; climate-related disaster impact reduction; and net zero future industries. Countries are also working to achieve SDG 7 (access to clean, affordable energy) meeting their obligations in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Energy Charter Treaty, as well as clean energy chapters in trade and investment agreements.

The UK government has announced plans to invest £160 million into off-shore wind energy to create jobs, reduce emissions and increase exports, by upgrading ports and infrastructure across the United Kingdom, hoping to create 60,000 indirect and 2,000 direct jobs. South Korea, with the passage of the “Korean New Deal,” aims to transition from fossil fuel dependency to a green economy through investments of £45 billion GBP (67 billon KRW) by 2022 in green technology, digitalization, and an enhanced social safety net.

Economic stimulus measures can also improve food security in support of SDG 2 (zero hunger) and to protect terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity in support of SDG 15 (life on land). Countries are announcing measures which can advance human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as addressing global biodiversity commitments in the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on Migratory Species and other accords.

Ethiopia has dedicated £490 million for emergency food distribution and £11.5 million specifically for those facing food insecurity. Samoa has created an economic stimulus package that dedicated £19.6 million to create a three-month grace period all loan payments, an exemption on import duties for staple foods and an expansion in duty concessions on agricultural and fishing materials. To support biodiversity, forests and other ecosystems, Canada has committed £763 million to preserve a quarter of land and coastal zones and plant two billion trees. Pakistan has launched a new programme employing over 2 million people to restore degraded land and plant trees. The United Kingdom dedicated £640 million for the Nature for Climate Fund to plant over forty million trees and to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland across England, as well as £25 million to create a new Nature Recovery Network in England and £10 million in support per year for the Darwin Plus programme, which protects unique wildlife in the UK Overseas Territories.

In essence, many countries are leveraging pandemic recovery to meet their international obligations and to support the SDGs.

However, if the necessary resources can be set in place, the pressure to address the second barrier– the capacity chasm – is thrown into sharp relief.

Awareness, knowledge and understanding, supported by research, skills development, and above all, by quality education – are desperately needed to advance achievement of each SDG. We all have important roles to play to prepare future generations of people, including students, governments and professionals, so that everyone can contribute to new, crucial efforts to address the inevitable impacts that centuries of unsustainable development have already set in motion.

This is the role for universities and colleges, and it is crucial for any potential progress at all to be realised on the ground. To this end, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network have already opened 38 national and regional networks, opening online forums for those who teach the SDGs to collaborate and share materials and opportunities.

The University of Cambridge through the Bennett Institute is undertaking research to ‘build forward’ a Wealth Economy, and through Cambridge Zero, to advise policy-makers on a green, zero-carbon recovery. The Scottish Parliament is training its officials to scrutinize legal and policy measures for their alignment with the SDGs. However, these efforts are only the start of what is needed.

As institutions, new commitment, creativity and courage is the key to action and offers hope. Our world – future generations of all species including humanity, is depending on us.

Related blog: Sustainable resources management, climate change and international law: a role for policy innovation  

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The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Marie-Claire Cordonier-Segger

Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger

Chair in Sustainable Development Law and Policy, University of Cambridge

Professor Dr Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, PhD (ad eund, Cantab), DPhil (Oxon), MEM (Yale), BCL & LLB (McGill), BA Hons (Carl/UVic) FRSC FRSA WIJA is a world-leading scholar and jurist in...

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