The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) says some of the measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic are not having a positive impact on the environment.
Estimates by the UN trade agency, however, indicate that coronavirus lockdowns around the globe have led to a dramatic five per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
While launching the 2020 edition of its SDG Pulse, on July 8, UNCTAD warned that the COVID-19 crisis is pushing critical economic, social and environmental development targets beyond reach.
UNCTAD’s online annual update tracking progress on a range of indicators of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows that poverty, inequality, the climate crisis, unsustainable production and other pressing challenges require even more urgent action due to COVID-19.
The world only has 10 years left to achieve the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to which more than 150 world leaders committed in 2015.
“Despite COVID-19, despite containment, despite everyone working from home, it was very important for us to publish the SDG Pulse on time”, said UNCTAD’s chief statistician, Steve MacFeely.
“The development challenges facing the world didn’t stop or go away, so it’s important that we continue to report progress towards the 2030 Agenda, and the important role that UNCTAD plays in that journey”, MacFeely said.
This year’s bulletin is no ordinary update, as the impact of COVID-19 is evident throughout the report.
The impact is evident in the trade of international goods, for which UNCTAD nowcasts a decline of almost 27% for the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same quarter last year. The organization also forecasts a fall of 20% in merchandise trade for the whole year.
For instance, SDG target 17.11 aims to significantly increase the exports of developing countries, and in particular to double the share of least developed countries (LDCs) in global exports by 2020.
Although LDCs had been achieving modest growth in market share, COVID-19 has likely pushed the target beyond reach.
Another shocking result featured in this year’s update is that the coronavirus-induced record-breaking fall of 5% in carbon dioxide emissions – compared with the same period in 2019 – will not be enough to achieve even the weakest of the targets set out by the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Global emissions must be cut by almost 8% every year for the next decade to keep the world within reach of the 1.5°C target of the climate agreement. The magnitude of that task has been laid bare by COVID-19.
This year’s ‘In Focus’ section of the update looks at COVID-19 from a statistical perspective, examining the measurement challenges associated with the pandemic itself, the different policy actions adopted by governments and the impact on employment by gender.
“While we discuss the impacts of COVID-19 throughout the report, we also explore the measurement issues and the implications for statistics itself”, MacFeely said.
The update also highlights the impacts on global statistics more generally, discussing how official statistics have had to adapt very quickly. Further, it examines some of the privacy risks associated with virus tracing apps.
“Governments and the public are faced with a dilemma. Technology can be used to track us during the pandemic”, says MacFeely, “but the same technology can be used to track us afterwards, too. Once the cork is out of the bottle, it’s almost impossible to put in back in again. The power to control populations is frightening.”
Our streets, beaches and ocean have been hit by a tidal wave of COVID-19 waste including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles and food packaging.
“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”
Global sales of disposable face masks alone are set to skyrocket from an estimated $800 million in 2019 to $166 billion in 2020, according to business consulting firm Grand View Research.
But this is only part of the story. Social distancing has also led to a flood of products delivered daily to homes – wrapped in a plethora of packaging – as people turn to online shopping and takeout services. The ensuing plastic waste is enormous.
For instance, during Singapore’s eight-week lockdown that eased on June 1, the island city-state’s 5.7 million residents discarded an additional 1,470 tons of plastic waste from takeout packaging and food delivery alone, according to a survey cited by The Los Angeles Times.
Historical data tells us that about 75% of coronavirus plastic will likely become waste clogging our landfills and floating in our seas. And the costs are staggering.
The negative spillover effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, for example, add up to an estimated $40 billion each year, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Trade policy’s role overlooked
Plastic is an ingredient in countless products traded internationally every day – from cars to toys to household appliances. Even goods that contain no plastic, such as apples or chocolate bars, are shipped in millions of tons of plastic packaging each year.
“Plastic production and consumption are a global system that has lots of trade dimensions”, Ms. Coke-Hamilton said.
“But the important role that global trade policies could play in the fight against plastic pollution has not garnered the attention it deserves”, she said while presenting an UNCTAD analysis of trade in plastics, sustainability and development to the World Trade Organisation’s trade and environment committee on July 3.
The number of trade measures mentioning plastics – such as technical regulations, subsidies, licenses and bans – reported to the WTO has increased annually by 28% over the past decade, showing growing concern among WTO members.
“But the way countries have been using trade policy to fight plastic pollution has mostly been uncoordinated, which limits the effectiveness of their efforts, Ms. Coke-Hamilton said. “There are limits to what any country can achieve on its own.”
She said the 164 developing and developed economies that make up the WTO have the ability to write multilateral trade rules that could more effectively address the fundamental issues of the global plastics economy.
Less pollution, more jobs
Besides regulating the production and consumption of plastics, UNCTAD urges governments and businesses to identify non-fossil fuel plastic substitutes.
The list of non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable materials that could replace plastic includes many well-known materials, such as glass, ceramics, natural fibres, paper, cardboard, rice husk, natural rubber and animal proteins.
As developing countries are key suppliers of many plastic substitutes, increased global demand could create new, greener trade and investment opportunities for them.
Developing nations supply, for example, 92% of the world’s jute, with the main suppliers being Bangladesh (74%) and India (9%). They also accounted for 94% of global natural rubber exports in 2019, with Thailand (31.5%), Indonesia (30%) and Côte d’Ivoire (8.5%) leading the pack.
Developing countries have a big stake in the global plastics economy. Their share of global plastics production jumped from 43.5% in 2009 to 58% in 2018. And two out of three plastic manufacturing jobs are in the global south.
“Since many plastics substitutes are also labour intensive, changes in production and consumption patterns could create new jobs”, Ms. Coke-Hamilton said.