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Currently in and out of the New York office even as the city remains among the worst-affected by Covid-19, Satya Tripathi has been Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Head of the New York office of UN's Environmental Programme (UNEP) since 2018. Born in Odisha and a qualified lawyer, Tripathi has served at various offices of the UN since 1998, in Europe, Asia and Africa; these include the UN Office for REDD+ Coordination in Indonesia, and serving as the UN Recovery Coordinator for the $7 billion post-tsunami and post-conflict efforts in Indonesia. His assignments include sustainable development, human rights democratic governance and legal affairs.
“This health crisis has shown that people with comorbidities and lower immunity and nutrition levels are paying a much heavier price. The divide is a stark reminder of what happens in a crisis—people at the lower end of the economic pyramid suffer far more disproportionately,” he says, stressing the importance of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), a blueprint to build a better and more sustainable future for all people. The SDGs were intended to target achievement by 2030; has Covid-19 put a spanner in the works? Edited excerpts from an interview with Tripathi:
Q. Is there a worry at the United Nations that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda is going to suffer the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic?
I do not see SDGs being sidelined as they are now thankfully entrenched into planning and thinking of nations. The health [Covid-19] question is paramount on everyone's mind at the UN, including Secretary General António Guterres. The risk is of fewer resources now available to do the right thing.
Covid-19 is a problem of epic proportions. There are 38.6 million unemployed people in the US now, roughly 30 percent of the working population. As the lockdown continues to hamper productivity, jobs, profits and government revenues, it will create a vicious cycle like no other we have seen. We will not be able to do good work and we have serious doubts about the availability of resources to achieve SDGs for the future. We are working with all stakeholders to keep them on the top of their consideration.
Q. It is obvious now that the social cost of coronavirus on marginalised communities is much higher than the health cost of the pandemic itself. Countries are also closing borders to save their people. What is your take on these two issues?
We always knew that natural disasters impact vulnerable communities much more than people with greater resources, but this health crisis has shown that people with comorbidities, lower immunity and nutrition levels are paying a much heavier price. The divide is a stark reminder of what happens in a crisis—people at the lower end of the economic pyramid suffer disproportionately. The SDGs are about equity and this affects that too; and the UN is concerned about this. As Secretary General Guterres says, we are not going to get out of this without equity and collaboration. We either fight this together or we fail together. There is no one country that will succeed while others don’t.
Q. The 2030 deadline was never going to be a straight line, but does the road to it look bumpier now? Is the deadline still realistic?
The deadline is set by member states and its there to make sure countries do the work. In the UN's perspective, we either prosper or perish together. There are some countries that have already achieved some SDGs, but it is about everyone getting there. Humanity is about everyone living a happy and fulfilling life, true to their potential. We can learn from the countries that have achieved some SDGs targets, since we have 10 more years [till the 2030 deadline].
Q. The European Union and Canada are weaving climate action into their Covid-19 recovery plan. How important is this?
SDGs are important but the climate challenge is a problem that is 100,000 times bigger. We have a tremendous opportunity now as both governments and corporations have to make new investments. All of them should be in sustainability. This is important because even if the Paris Climate Agreement is implemented fully, it will make the globe warmer by 3.2-degrees Celsius, not 2 degrees. The Paris Agreement is celebrated because it’s the first time the world came together to agree on a climate action, not so much because it has a very ambitious target. In 2020, we were supposed to raise ambitions to get to a 2 degree-drop in temperature, which seemed manageable.
Without investments in sustainability, we have already utilised 2,600 gigaton of our global carbon budget [2,900 gigaton] for the 2-degree pathway. At the current rate, we would have breached the [global carbon budget] threshold before 2030. It will be impossible to stay at 2 degrees. That will be catastrophic and then the SDGs won’t matter. We need to look at both as interconnected goals. If climate goals are not met, you will have hundreds of cyclones like Amphan more frequently, perpetuating poverty.
Q. You have said that member states are considering SDGs in their Covid-19 recovery plans. Is there anything out of India yet?
We are helping the Niti Aayog host a high-level roundtable on regenerative agriculture to consider new ideas in sustainability. India currently spends $13 billion in fertiliser subsidies alone. Fertilisers cause tremendous damage to the ecosystem—polluting water bodies, causing losses in productivity, fertility, cancer… I could go on. If India moves to regenerative agriculture, it could help bring respectable income for farmers and curb migration too. I’m glad that the Niti Aayog is taking this initiative.
Q. At the same time, the government is quietly approving projects in environmentally sensitive regions. Does this worry you and will these talks convert into action?
They will. This is happening everywhere, not just in India. During a crisis of unforeseen proportions, all governments go into their toolkits to see what they can do to generate resources. Covid-19 poses challenges like starvation and extreme poverty. It is not my place to advise governments, but I'd highlight the need to look at natural capital the same way we look at financial capital. If you deplete your stock or principle, there will be no returns in the medium to longer term. So we need to have a holistic look at the true cost of any investment.
Q. Everyone is looking for a blueprint to recovery. Can the tools and principles of SDGs be ingrained into our growth plans?
An emphatic yes! It’s the only thing that makes sense, more so in the Covid-19 context. To give a simple example, in India, if we switch to regenerative agriculture, it will create a healthy population that can fight off diseases in the future. This will create a different economy altogether.