After the COVID-19 pandemic we can do better than simply return to business as usual
It’s a cruel and twisted enemy that claims not only people’s lives and livelihoods but makes us each a danger to our loved ones. Attacking societies at their core, coronavirus is the greatest test we have faced since the Second World War. Yet we find ourselves experiencing something else remarkable: an outpouring of hope, resourcefulness, and new-found solidarity.
American social critic Rebecca Solnit encountered something similar in her study of US communities dealing with the aftermath of major calamities, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the 9/11 terror attacks. Confronted by disaster, she wrote, we get “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become."
We see this shared purpose on display today: from companies clubbing together to manufacture ventilators to self-isolating households gathered on doorsteps across the country to pay tribute to the efforts of frontline health workers.
If we’ve learned one thing, it’s how much we depend on each other – for our health systems as well as for our food systems and supply chains. Our society is only as safe as its most vulnerable members. That’s why we can’t risk going back to how things were.
We now know just how exposed our way of life is to major shocks that arise from our mismanagement of the natural world. If we are to avert even more troubling threats in the future, things need to change – and profoundly.
The coronavirus crisis comes on top of an even greater climate and environmental crisis. These crises are, of course, deeply connected. The World Health Organization has warned that this won’t be the last or the worst pandemic. Seventy-five percent of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife, and more deadly pathogens exist in nature.
Destruction of natural habitats and climate change both drive wildlife closer to people. Catastrophic levels of global warming await unless countries quintuple their carbon-cutting ambitions. A warmer Earth means more mosquitoes and ticks bringing disease to new places, more allergies and asthma.
The pollution blanket we have put around the Earth makes our lungs more susceptible to infection. New Harvard University research has found that, when it comes to COVID-19, air pollution is a death multiplier, increasing fatalities by 15 percent.
As Churchill said: “You must look at facts, because they look at you.” As we emerge from COVID-19 we can – and must – recover to a better position than that in which we started.
How leaders decide to reactivate the economy in response will either amplify global and national threats or mitigate them. The stimulus measures being signed off by governments are some of the biggest in history.
We can rebuild and power our economy with cleaner energy, taking advantage of zero interest rates to scale up zero carbon power. Big investment to unleash the deployment of clean technologies – such as renewables, hydrogen, batteries, and carbon capture – can simultaneously accelerate healthier forms of energy, generating 65 million new jobs and $26 trillion in financial benefits worldwide by 2030.
We can make our cities safer, putting in place infrastructure that allows us to move away from dirty, polluting vehicles that claim eight million lives prematurely. We can improve the quality of our homes: the average London building, for example, is 38 percent energy efficient, wasting nearly two-thirds of the energy bought for it. Imagine the potential to lower people’s utility bills, ensure the elderly have warm homes in winter – and create six million decent jobs globally – by investing in buildings' efficiency retrofits.
To achieve this, we can and must reorient finance away from polluting activities and channel that capital into sectors, businesses, and technologies that will help deliver a fairer and more resilient society. Doing that will not only protect pensions but could boost them.
Sixty percent of sustainable investments outperformed the rest of the market since the crisis began and are likely to remain better bets in the long run. Last week BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, told investors: “a commonly held view is that a return sacrifice is needed when adopting sustainable investing. We disagree – and in fact believe the opposite is true.”
Finally, we can learn the hardest lesson that this pandemic has to teach us by putting nature at the heart of our economy. We can halt the frightening loss of nature that makes future pandemics more likely, while switching to regenerative agricultural practices that repower the rural economy and make diets healthier and more affordable.
These win-wins are locked together in reality and must be also locked together in delivery. The opportunity is this: we can achieve a prosperous economy that also safeguards the global commons, improving the quality of the air we breathe, generating decent jobs in industries with a future, and arresting irreversible damage to the natural habits on which protecting human health depends.
As ministers from some 35 countries convene via video conference for the 11th Petersberg Climate Dialogue to explore ways of enhancing climate protection, it is clear we have some important choices to make. What we choose to invest in now will either lock us into a higher-risk future or set us on a healthier, safer path. We can choose to emerge from this emergency in a better place than that in which we entered it and hold on to the solidarity this crisis has inspired. We will need it.
This piece was originally published for the GEF-Telegraph Partnership.