Using COVID-19 recovery packages to rebuild a sustainable future

The ISC-IIASA Synthesis Report Transformations Within Reach looks at how multi-trillion dollar COVID-19 recovery packages can be channelled to rebuild a world that is simultaneously more sustainable and more resilient.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 70 countries have halted childhood vaccination programmes, and in many places, health services for cancer screening, family planning, or non-COVID-19 infectious diseases are being neglected. The pandemic is also jeopardizing the achievement of several other Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), while exacerbating poverty and slowing progress on eliminating energy poverty. According to the World Bank, an additional 88 to 115 million people experienced extreme poverty during 2020 because of COVID-19. Moreover, according to projections, COVID-19 will bring about the worst reversal in global poverty eradication in the last three decades.

The ISC-IIASA Synthesis Report: Transformations Within Reach brings into sharper focus the systemic changes that need to be made in order to support the necessary transformative changes that have been revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to reverse the negative setbacks towards the SDG.  

The report captures the common threads and recommendations from the four thematic ISC-IIASA reports that focus on a more sustainable pathway to a post COVID-19 world.  

“We need to strengthen the enabling frameworks in which society operates, this includes policy coherence at a governance level and insuring that different divisions of the government are all pulling in the same direction as far [as] sustainability and disaster preparedness are concerned. We also need to strengthen the science systems in countries so that we are not once again taking the siloed approach through the way we create, disseminate and embed knowledge.”

– Leena Srivastava, Deputy Director General for Science, IIASA

The synthesis report makes seven key recommendations towards a sustainable resilient future:

Strengthen knowledge base on, and preparedness for, compound and systemic risks by enhancing scientific capacity through well-resourced and stable institutions with the use of long-term funding. This enhancement will include stronger research and evidence, which can assess how novel crises could pose systemic risks. These institutions will also do a better job at addressing systemic risks more effectively through stress testing, adaptive management and global inclusivity in knowledge building and dissemination.

Repurpose and redesign global institutions for the complexities of the 21st century through multilateral co-operation that will help economic growth, political momentum, and social equality, build resilience and resolve disparities. This means that an effective system of multilateral cooperation is needed within institutions such as the UN, as they have the ability to direct countries toward global cooperation in times of global crises. Organizations like the UN need to start setting an example to other global institutions by adhering to major reforms that work towards defragmentation and less competition between divisions and nations within their organizations.

Advance toward smart, evidence-based, adaptive, good governance arrangements at all levels by focusing on collaboration across the board, at the local, regional, national, sub-regional and global level. This reform can only come about through stronger channels of communication and understanding the complex interconnectedness of the rapidly evolving challenges this smart, complex, transnational, hazardous and increasingly unequal world possesses. This means that science-policy partnerships must increase, and the SDGs must be integrated into policy.

Partnerships are the key to sustainability solutions, which means international collaboration must occur within and between governments, the science system and the private sector to achieve global reform toward the SDGs.

“What we have seen with COVID-19 is that people are ready to adopt change and come up with new solutions which are much more sustainable, but this will go away unless governments, businesses and everyone can provide the resources for these changes to take place and stay long term”

– Luis Gomez Echeverri, Emeritus Research Scholar, IIASA 

Create a pervasive, sustainable knowledge society by leveraging the importance of science as seen in the responses to the COVID-19 crisis, which have revealed that systemic approaches are insufficiently appreciated in both the policy-making and academic communities. The capacities to apply systemic thinking and to undertake systemic analyses need to be urgently built upon globally. Action needs to be undertaken to enhance scientific capacity where it’s not yet readily available, and the potential of knowledge sharing provisions need to be leveraged in low- and middle-income countries.

Reset economic infrastructure and development for sustainability by understanding and balancing the interconnectivity between global and local needs and building decentralized energy and food systems as a means of achieving more context-specific, employment-generating, resilient and equitable development.

Cities account for three-quarters of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and an estimated two-thirds of global final energy use; 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, with 2.5 billion more expected by 2050. Applying holistic approaches to urban planning can help deal with multiple challenges, empowering local governments to act, and promote nature-based solutions. COVID 19 has revealed the potential for remote functioning, digitalized working, and the creation of an enabling environment for reorganizing urban spaces and facilities toward socially acceptable sustainability. These adaptations demonstrate the feasibility of redesigning cities into connected urban villages that prioritize space for sustainable living.

“Sustainable and resilient” have to be the new “mantra” for development because growing inequalities and extreme vulnerability will stymie future growth and development. According to the World Bank, 40 to 60 million people could be pushed into poverty because of the COVID-19 crisis, and these effects of COVID-19 will be set for years to come. These negative economic impacts mainly affect those who already had lower incomes prior to the pandemic

Digitalization has come to the rescue of several sectors in the form of innovative services during the pandemic. Universal access to digital products and services must be prioritized to help break the cycle of marginalization and poverty. Social safety nets are also required now more than ever to help improve access to essential services for the poor and vulnerable. These packages should address multiple dividends across the social, economic, environmental spheres while keeping the SDGs at its core.


The pandemic still has many more months to run before it can be said to be “over.” During this period, the innovations, structural modifications, and lifestyle changes being witnessed today will continue to take hold, and as recommended in the ISC-IIASA Synthesis Report, an enhanced prioritization of the role of science and science systems, global-local interconnectivity, digitalization, sustainable urbanisation, interconnected partnerships between sectors, and decentralized food and energy systems is needed.

In other words, the context of the pandemic will be ripe for wide-ranging transformations, but only if the enabling frameworks are carefully crafted in the transparent, participatory, and fair manner that constitutes good governance and equality.


The full ISC-IIASA Synthesis Report: Transformations Within Reach is now available.

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