Since the United Nations (UN) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, industries producing and trading in commodities have started planning for more sustainable practices in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, covering the breadth of human activity, have affected commodity sectors in many different ways, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the unevenness of progress toward meeting the SDGs. 

For example, the metals and mining industry has the greatest exposure to SDG 15: Life on Land, SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, and SDG 14: Life Below Water.

The offshore production of the oil and gas industry only increases their exposure to SDG 14 relative to other mining industries.

In 2021, International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation (IPIEC), an industry trade association, developed a roadmap for the oil industry to meet the UN’s sustainability goals.

IPIEC identified 10 SDGs in three categories in which the oil industry can have the most impact.

In the climate category, where reducing global warming is the priority, IPIEC calls for oil and gas companies to invest in technology that enables low-carbon products. 

It also calls for reducing methane and carbon dioxide emissions and flaring in daily operations.

People power

In the people category, the roadmap urges oil companies to improve the communities in which they operate by promoting adequate living conditions, good governance, and human rights. 

The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights framework should inform their efforts, according to IPIEC.

Major oil producers have expressed support for IPIEC’s SDG Roadmap. Most said the SDG Roadmap aligns with and helps guide their zero-emission or carbon-neutral goals.

For example, Shell has said that the SDG Roadmap has helped to guide its Powering Progress strategy, which integrates sustainability with the company’s business strategy.

However, a joint report by the Responsible Mining Foundation and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment suggests that the mining industry has a long way to go in implementing sustainable practises.

Of the 38 mining companies examined, few have made significant progress toward more than one of the 17 SDGs.

The one goal in which most of these companies did make progress was SDG 4: Quality Education. 

The report cited “relatively widespread” commitment to developing the skills of local workforces and STEM education among local populations. 

To meet SDG 14: Life Below Water, only one of the 38 companies had a demonstrated commitment to reducing or preventing the dumping of tailings into local lakes and rivers, the report stated.  

Progress has been uneven across food commodity sectors as well, but much of this can be attributed to the pandemic, which has led to broad economic declines and dramatic price volatility. 

Developing countries that rely on agriculture for most of their economic activity have seen the greatest erosion of sustainability.

Food security

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a 2021 report that the pandemic has resulted in a deterioration of several SDG indicators, especially SDG 1: No Poverty and SDG 2: Zero Hunger. 

The FAO estimates that the pandemic has pushed 83-132 million more people into chronic hunger.

For example, consumer maize prices in South Sudan rose 77% in 2020, pushing millions into greater food insecurity in that country. 

Drought and civil strife prevented local maize producers from taking advantage of the higher prices, and imports were often unobtainable.

The FAO’s report on SDG indicators did note a few bright spots in improving the sustainability of some commodity sectors, however. 

Between 2018 and 2020, progress was made globally in building regulatory and institutional frameworks for protecting local fisheries. 

Furthermore, the report stated that the rate of tropical deforestation has slowed in the last decade.

Only when the economic disruption of the pandemic has subsided can most commodity sectors expect some stabilisation, which should make a commitment to sustainability more economically feasible.

Read our latest issue of Trade Finance Talks, Spring 2022