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What could Covid-19 mean for the UK's entrenched sustainability challenges?

04 June 2020

Our latest insight paper explores the impact of Covid-19 on the ability to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK.

What could Covid-19 mean for the UK's entrenched sustainability challenges?
Sustainable Development Goals

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK was not firing on all cylinders. Productivity growth was weak, regional economic imbalances persisted and we faced a significant decarbonisation challenge. ‘Levelling up’, an industrial strategy and the net-zero target were all identified as solutions.

But beyond that, the UK has committed to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 - what was performance like and what impact will Covid-19 have on achieving it?

The Office for National Statistics monitors UK performance against the 232 indicators that sit behind the 17 SDGs and the UK government, in line with treaty obligations, publishes progress against these. The first such progress report, the UK Voluntary National Review (VNR), was published in June 2019. Alongside this monitoring other organisations, including the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) track progress.

UKSSD reviewed the UK’s performance against the SDGs in 2018, ICE contributed to this review which found that out of the 143 targets relevant to the domestic delivery of the SDGs, the UK is performing well on 24% of them. There are gaps in policy or inadequate performance for 57% of them, and 15% where there is little to no policy in place to address the target, or where performance is poor.

The VNR also showed that:

  • 17% of the UK population live in households at risk of poverty
  • The adult mortality rate attributable to air pollution in England was 5.06%
  • 11% of those aged 16 to 24 are not in education, employment or training
  • 19.9% of dwellings in England fail the minimum ‘decent homes standard’

Addressing these and other SDG indicators will be important as we develop plans for a post-Covid recovery.

Infrastructure has a role to play in delivering the SDGs

ICE's Enabling Better Infrastructure Programme highlighted the role the SDGs can play in providing a baseline for strategic infrastructure planning, ensuring that both national need and national vision are married together in a cohesive plan for the future. Despite this importance, few developed countries use the SDGs or reference them as part of their infrastructure plans.

Covid-19 the likely impact

ICE UK Fellows were surveyed for their views on the likely impact of Covid-19 on the UK’s ability to achieve the SDGs (positive, mixed or negative). Just over a third feel the impact will be mixed.

SDG 1- Ending poverty in all its forms within the UK, and SDG 8 - Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all, are expected to be negatively impacted.

There is less agreement on which SDGs will be positively impacted. Respondents opinions are spread between SDG 3- Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, SDG 9- Building resilient infrastructure, inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation and SDG 13- Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The impact on climate change, SDG 13- Taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts is not clear as respondents are equally split between positive, negative and mixed impact. The diagram below shows the spread of opinion on positive and negative impacts only.

 The diagram shows the spread of opinion on positive and negative impacts only.
The diagram shows the spread of opinion on positive and negative impacts only.

The results reflect findings from interviews and other sources used for this paper - the economic impact will push more towards the poverty line with uncertainty around the bounce back economically. There may be some benefits for combating climate change (potentially if more work from home), a concerted effort to improve the health system (to increase spare capacity) and the potential for infrastructure investment to support the recovery.

These findings and interviews conducted for our insight paper draws out some crucial lessons; these are explored in further detail in our Green Paper:

  • The pandemic has shown just how connected we are through our actions on this planet. There are lessons here for how we view infrastructure as a system of systems supporting societal outcomes.
  • Socio-economic divisions have also been brought into sharp focus, in particular key workers not being treated as key when it comes to health outcomes and access to transport and housing.
  • Public behaviours can change quickly where the public are clear about the outcome and how individual action contributes to the whole, there are lessons here for unpacking targets such as the 2050 net-zero target. On the net-zero target, while air quality has improved, this has come at the expense of the economy, with talk of a green recovery any plans in this direction should heed this lesson and factor in social and economic sustainability in the pursuit of net-zero.
  • Having strategic access to manufacturing capability is important to deliver wider social outcomes. There are lessons here for infrastructure supply chains and access to materials, goods and services.
  • There is a value in being prepared against risks, while on balance infrastructure demand has gone down, not up, the next crisis may bring a different impact. Infrastructure networks need to build in the required spare capacity linked to a national risk register.

Call for evidence

The insights paper published today is supporting a wider call for evidence that ICE has recently launched on behalf of the Infrastructure Client Group. The questions contained within the call for evidence are as follows:

  • What other factors, or combination of factors, will determine attitudes to public life as we transition to a new normal?
  • What other systemic changes, driven by lessons learned during the lockdown period, can we expect to be important as part of the new normal?
  • Are our assumptions of the new priorities for infrastructure correct?
  • What other changes to infrastructure provision will be needed and what assumptions sit behind that need?
  • Have we made the correct assumptions on the changes in delivery that will be required, to deliver infrastructure as part of the new normal?
  • What are the intermediate steps required to move us towards these new approaches to delivery?
  • What other fundamental shifts are required to deliver concrete and long-lasting change in how we operationalise to deliver infrastructure to achieve societal requirements?

The call for evidence runs until June 14. Representations can be made by getting in contact.

Read the Insights paper

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers