Walking the talk: Can the SDGs help support the COVID-19 recovery in cities and regions?

In times of a global pandemic, war and rising instability, how do we get back on track to good health, peace and resilience? The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers a solid route, but we need to step up action.

Deep trouble

Yet as the UN Secretary General recently highlighted, “our world is in deep trouble – and so too are the Sustainable Development Goals”. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has partly unwound the progress achieved on the 2030 Agenda. Between 2019 and 2021, the world made no progress on the SDGs.  And with seven years remaining, much needs to be done if we are to meet the targets set for 2030.

Countries worldwide haven’t made progress on the SDGs since 2019

SDG Index Score over time, world average (2010-2021)

Source: Sachs, J., Lafortune, G., Kroll, C., Fuller, G., Woelm, F. (2022). From Crisis to Sustainable Development: the SDGs as Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond. Sustainable Development Report 2022.

National governments alone cannot reverse this trend. Cities and regions are linchpins for countries to achieve the SDGs by 2030. They have a hand in most policies essential to drive progress, including water, housing, transport, infrastructure, land use and climate change. Local and regional governments account for 55% of total public investment in OECD countries. At least 65% of the 169 SDG targets will not be achieved without the engagement of subnational governments. Yet more than 80% of regions in OECD countries have not achieved any of the 17 goals and 70% of cities in OECD countries have not yet achieved more than two goals.

A renewed focus

There is hope. Cities and regions are refocussing on the 2030 Agenda. According to a recent survey, 40% of subnational governments were already using the SDGs before the COVID-19 pandemic and are integrating them into their recovery strategies. Another 44% had not used the SDGs before, but plan to do so to guide recovery. Two thirds of subnational governments using the SDGs for recovery decided to do so to shape new plans, policies and strategies based on the 2030 Agenda or adapt existing ones.

Subnational governments are using the SDGs to shape their COVID-19 recovery strategies

Source: OECD (2022), “The Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for COVID-19 recovery in cities and regions”, OECD Regional Development Papers, No. 26, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/6d25b59b-en.

Walking the talk

How can cities and regions implement the SDGs? Cities and regions can use the SDGs as a blueprint to shape sustainable development strategies. For example, the regions of Flanders, Belgium, and Southern Denmark have grounded their regional development strategies in the SDGs. As part of this, the region of Flanders is implementing measures to develop sustainable neighbourhoods while experimenting with new private financing mechanisms to increase the availability of affordable housing. Southern Denmark has put in place initiatives to foster the circular economy with improved use and reuse of materials to minimise environmental impacts.

Cities and regions can use the SDGs as a powerful tool to better co-ordinate actions across different levels of government. For instance, the government of Japan has established the SDGs Future Cities initiative, which provides financial and technical support to 40 local governments to implement SDG projects. This initiative has supported the city of Kitakyushu to put in place the Kitakyushu SDG Future Bonds, a sustainability bonds programme aimed at financing initiatives to achieve the SDGs.

The SDGs can help subnational governments engage with local stakeholders. The city of Braga, Portugal, for example collaborated with the University of Minho to establish a local monitoring framework for the SDGs. In Iceland, the municipality of Kópavogur, signed a memorandum of understanding with private companies to implement the SDGs which included commitments to develop new performance indicators as inputs to local monitoring systems.

Shifting up a gear

But extra effort is needed. More cities and regions need to use the SDGs to design, implement and monitor recovery strategies responding to the challenges magnified by COVID-19. A few priorities stand out from an OECD mapping of cities and regions’ priorities for long-term COVID-19 recovery and resilience. Cities and regions could expand social and community services to support disadvantaged groups that were most affected by the pandemic (SDG 1). Cities and regions could incentivise decarbonisation and promote clean energy from zero-carbon sources (SDG 7), a key priority following Russia’s large-scale aggression against Ukraine. Multi-modal transport options need to be scaled up since air pollution is an area where cities and regions are furthest away from meeting the SDG targets (SDG 11). Cities and regions should also encourage citizen participation and stakeholder engagement in policymaking to build citizens’ trust in governments post-COVID-19.

These efforts and initiatives need to be incentivised and supported by national governments. In particular, stronger systems are needed to raise awareness, share best practices, build capacity and provide the right financial support and incentives to subnational governments. With only seven years left until 2030, it is time to walk the talk. It is time for policy makers in cities, regions and national governments to move forward with this agenda together and invest in the SDGs.

Mayor of Braga | Website | + posts

Ricardo Rio is the Mayor of Braga since 2013, the third largest city of Portugal. Besides being a proud member of the OECD Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative, is an Executive Committee Member of EUROCITIES, Member of board of the Global Parliament of Mayors and a member of the European Committee of the Regions (where he is the Vice-Chairman of SEDEC Commission). He was the winner of the World Mayor Prize for Sustainability 2021, attributed by The City Mayors Foundation. Under Mayor Rio’s leadership, Braga is a founder member of the Global StartUp Cities initiative, member of the EUROCITIES Green City Accord and member of the European Commission and European Committee of the Regions’ Chamber of National Ambassadors of the Covenant of Mayors for Portugal.

Coordinator, Territorial Approach to SDGs at | Website | + posts

Stefano Marta is currently coordinating the Programme “A Territorial Approach to the Sustainable Development Goals,” which support cities and regions in implementing the SDGs in various OECD and partner countries. Stefano also coordinated the OECD project on “Reshaping Decentralized Development Cooperation.” He previously led the initiative “Adopting a Territorial Approach to Food Security and Nutrition Policy,” jointly developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), OECD and UNCDF. He also worked on various other projects, including on urban-rural linkages in Morocco and on territorial indicators in Tunisia. Prior to joining the OECD, Stefano worked at FAO on the territorial approach to food security and nutrition policy. In addition, he was part of the FAO Task Force for the formulation of the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Strategy 2040 of Oman and he also participated in the FAO Al-Ghab Development Programme in Syria.

Junior Economist/Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Lorenz Gross is a Junior Economist/Policy Analyst in the Sustainable Development and Global Relations Unit in the Cities, Urban Policies and Sustainable Development Division at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE). He has contributed to national and subnational policy dialogues on the localisation of the SDGs in cities and regions in various OECD countries and beyond, as well as projects on decentralised development cooperation. Previously, he worked for a German think-tank analysing socio-economic trends.