The UN 2030 Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the COVID-19 pandemic share two important characteristics. They are global challenges that if not met, pose risks to all citizens. Furthermore, responses need to be system-level, rather than sectoral. COVID-19 has illuminated three complementary, compelling actions that can address these challenges—work across silos; visibly use science in policy; and harness simultaneous global interruption to habits.

This commentary describes these using worked examples and suggests actions for policymakers and other leaders. Acknowledging that the full SDG agenda is of much broader multidimensional scope than the COVID-19 pandemic, the SDG examples focus on environmental sustainability.