Reconciling radical and feasible responses to societal emergencies: learning from COVID-19

On the eve of the 2021 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, ISC Governing Board member Anna Davies explores what the COVID-19 pandemic response can teach us about system change.

Wind turbines fields clouds

This article is part of the ISC’s new series, Transform21, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development. It is republished from the Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.

It is now more than 50 years since the Limits to Growth debates brought global crises to wider attention and called for radical action to avert the kinds of climate and biodiversity emergencies we now see in sharp relief. It is with increasing urgency that scientific evidence is being communicated to policy makers and shapers, as well as to wider publics and other stakeholders, demonstrating – with ever greater precision – the need for radical changes to the ways we produce and consume natural resources in order to secure the planet for current and for future generations of human and non-human species. System change for climate change is a common refrain of climate justice activists, but it is also reiterated by scientists and policy-makers internationally. So why are we, as a global society, still not moving in the right direction? What might we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and the global response to it, to help us reorient global development pathways onto a more sustainable footing?  

Drawing on insights from the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group position paper for the 2021 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, in this blog I want to posit some ideas as to why radical system change for sustainability has not occurred and how we can learn from global reactions to COVID-19 to correct this lack of movement towards sustainability, despite the pandemic perilously disrupting implementation of actions focused on achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

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Enhancing Policy-making During an Emergency: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, many politicians have talked about the importance of “following the science” when implementing COVID-19 policy. However, there has sometimes been a disconnect between government policy and the fast-evolving scientific evidence.

As leading scientists Claude Henry, Johan Rockström and Nicholas Stern have argued, the COVID pandemic is one symptom of the impacts of human activity on natural ecosystems. It also acts as a stark signifier of the kinds of devastating disruptions global crises can make to life and livelihoods. It is a blunt warning that profound transformations are required to stabilize both earth and societal systems. However, despite – or perhaps even because of – its devastating impacts, the pandemic also provides an opportunity to rethink the extent to which societal systems can be transformed; what is often referred to as feasible transformation. The extreme changes made to work and mobility patterns and implemented over very short time scales by many in nations around the globe provide an unambiguous exemplar of this.

Why is this relevant? Many sustainability, climate, or biodiversity scientists, myself included, will have been tasked at some point with providing radical yet feasible recommendations for system change to policy-makers struggling to achieve the SDGs and respond to climate and biodiversity crises. However, I argue that such tasks are designed to fail if feasibility is understood to mean feasible within the bounds of the current system that is itself in desperate need of transformation. Certainly, defining what is feasible is not solely or even mainly in the hands of scientists, but is a matter of social and political will framed by wider (and highly uneven) structures of power and influence.

What the COVID-19 response to date has shown us is that radical changes can and have occurred over a short time period. These have had major impacts on many sections of the economy, but transforming economies, and in particular systems of value and valuation and assumptions around growth and physical limits, are pivotal in order to meet the meta-challenges we currently face. Innovation abounds in this space, from work which recognizes the hidden value of diverse economies to doughnut economics, but practical application of the concepts remains in its infancy. Yet without reform of economic systems alongside social and environmental ones change will be much constrained. 

Whether disruptions caused by the pandemic ultimately lead to building back (or more progressively forward) better remains to be seen. Certainly, recovery must not reinstate the unsustainable development pathways that went before. Instead the focus should be on new investments which work to achieve the SDGs, protect and enhance biodiversity, and transition towards a globally decarbonised future. Any process of recovery must be a just transition, as is being articulated with regards decarbonisation efforts internationally. This requires governments to foster sustainable and equitable economic recovery, to jointly address the climate and biodiversity emergencies and major social inequalities, leaving no one and no place behind.  

In its report, the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group emphasizes the importance of using diverse knowledge and scientific practice to craft innovative, efficient, applicable, and sustainable solutions to today’s urgent challenges. The group – and the scientific communities it represents – stands ready to work with all stakeholders to devise responsible and science-informed solutions which are fit for purpose to meet the existential challenges we face; to help decision-makers and societies recover from the pandemic and build more equitable, resilient and sustainable futures.


Read the position paper for the 2021 HLPF

cover of the publication

Position paper from the Scientific and Technological Community Major Group

The paper sets out ways to advance progress on the SDGs throughout the Decade of Action while living with and through the COVID-19 pandemic and underscores the urgent need to address existing scientific evidence and move from plans to action.


Anna Davies

Anna Davies is Professor of Geography, Environment and Society at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, where she directs the Environmental Governance Research Group. Anna Davies is a member of the ISC Governing Board and a member of the Royal Irish Academy..


Image by Thomas Richter from Unsplash

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