The COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis is likely to push tens of millions of people back into poverty and undercut efforts to improve human well-being around the world. And as bad as things are, this is only a preview of how the climate crisis and the destruction of nature will threaten our economies and societies.
Yet we have all the means necessary to take a better, safer path. If countries design their economic recovery plans wisely, they can tackle the health pandemic and climate crises in tandem. We have a small window of time to not only build back, but to build back better. No one wants to return to a society with high unemployment, food insecurity, accelerating destruction of nature, traffic jams and air pollution. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign our economies and societies to be more resilient to global shocks, to be more sustainable and to leave no one behind.
WRI and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) just concluded a series of global dialogues on how the world can respond to the COVID-19 crisis in ways that align with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. These conversations brought together several dozen thought leaders from research institutes, foundations, international organizations and civil society around the world.
Key insights from this dialogue have been captured in the BMU and WRI Global Dialogue Summary for Policymaking which was delivered to governments just ahead of a September 3 ministerial meeting to launch Platform for Redesign 2020, an initiative led by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment and supported by the UNFCCC. This is a timely and critical opportunity for high-level government officials and others to exchange views on how to integrate sustainability and resilience into economic recovery programs.
It is our hope that governments learn from the knowledge gathered by the BMU and WRI Global Dialogue and deliver not only words of solidarity but ambitious action to tackle the COVID-19 and climate crises simultaneously.
Here are five key takeaway messages from the BMU and WRI Global Dialogue:
1. People Must Be at the Heart of a Green and Resilient Recovery
The impacts of the pandemic and economic lockdown have led to a stark decline in development gains, disproportionately affecting low-income and vulnerable households, communities and countries. Disparities have sharpened within countries and between the developed and developing world; the latter have experienced a “perfect storm” of unemployment, capital flight, loss of remittances and increasing debt leading to the largest economic contraction in decades.
Given these unprecedented impacts, countries must pursue a recovery that puts the well-being of people at the center. The focus must be on jobs, livelihoods, social protection measures and resilience. To do this right, we’ll need an approach that looks at these issues in a granular way to understand which workers, communities and geographies are most affected, and how tailored relief and recovery policies and investments can best support them.
And importantly, we’ll have to make sure that local communities help shape their own recoveries. Social dialogue and stakeholder participation must be fundamental to the recovery process. As was asserted by a representative of a grassroots group at the dialogues, the response must be pursued “with us, not for us.”
2. Governments Must Ramp Up Their Investment in a Green Recovery
While some countries are leading the way with green and resilient recovery plans — particularly in Europe and some developing countries, such as Jamaica — in others the outlook appears mixed or headed in the wrong direction. We need to move beyond rhetoric and ensure that countries make substantial investments in redesigning our power sector, buildings, transportation and food systems that can put us on a transformational path. At the same time, we must avoid high-carbon corporate bailouts, investments and regulatory changes that are happening in too many instances and could lock in dangerous emissions for years to come.
We need to ensure that recovery investments and policies in fact achieve both short- and long-term objectives. Clear metrics for sustainability, along with ongoing reviews to provide accountability, are essential.
3. Building Resilience is Key for an Effective Recovery
The COVID-19 crisis has shown us that resilience is fundamental to the future when it comes to challenges such as health, climate, biodiversity, food and building more inclusive societies. While some recovery plans have begun to address climate action in areas such as renewable energy and buildings, there has been much less attention to strengthening resilience to climate change and to favoring nature-based solutions. Building resilience can range from drought-resistant seeds and more efficient irrigation that help farmers adapt to extreme droughts to restoring mangrove forests that help buffer tidal surge and protect communities from strong storms. A landmark report by the Global Commission on Adaptation highlights the strong economic benefits of investing in resilience. Economic benefit cost ratios that range from 2:1 to 10:1 are common for many investments in climate resilience.
4. Global Crises Are Often Interlinked
Over the last 20 years, a range of crises — financial, refugees, climate, health — have exposed interdependencies across sectors and borders. These crises are interlinked; for example, unchecked human encroachment on nature is one of the root causes for zoonotic pandemics.
To reduce risk and better manage future complex crises, we must recognize these links. This requires building the right partnerships to reach key decision-makers (such as finance ministers) beyond the climate “bubble” and building strong alliances with other movements and constituencies such as those on health, labor, inequality and nature. In addition, the recovery process should leverage commitments and action for the upcoming decade catalyzed by the Paris Agreement, Convention on Biological Diversity and the Sustainable Development Goals.
5. International Cooperation and Solidarity Are Critical
Countries must work together to overcome challenges that don’t respect national borders. Developing countries will need additional resources to build back better. Bilateral development cooperation and international finance institutions such as the IMF and multilateral development banks must play a robust role in filling this gap. Private finance for green and resilient infrastructure and cities will need to increase. Local financial markets must be strengthened. Many developing countries will require debt restructuring or cancellation. International cooperation and solidarity must step up in times of crisis.
Redefining Growth and Development
Building an inclusive, green and resilient recovery is an urgent and shared global challenge. The COVID-19 crisis offers a unique opportunity to engage people in thinking about what kind of growth we want, and the importance of making human, societal and planetary well-being central to all our policies and institutions.
The stakes are high, but as the pandemic and resulting lockdown has demonstrated, extraordinary interventions are possible. Almost everywhere, safeguarding human health has moved to the center of policymaking and public investment. Almost as soon as that happened, we experienced a different world: better air, water, less traffic and noise, and often more engagement with community, family and nature. While the severe pain of the crisis must not be underestimated, these experiences can be seen as a postcard from the future — a way to help us picture the future we want.
Stimulus packages are being designed quickly and the urge to take action is justifiably strong. If we are going to truly build back in a manner that responds to the climate and biodiversity crises and advances the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to collect the evidence and build public and political support at an even faster pace. The ministerial meeting hosted by Japan this week is a critical opportunity to set the world on a better course.
Norbert Gorissen is the deputy director general of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).