Challenging truths and unprecedented opportunities in the way we live and work have been revealed by the coronavirus, and we must address both head on as we reset and rebuild.
Critical to this is galvanizing political impetus to reduce the most damaging impacts of climate change and boost biodiversity while restarting the economy.
The ways in which nature and humans are interconnected have been clearly visible during the crisis. A dramatic reduction in travel has meant air pollution levels have have plummeted in 10 major cities during lockdown, providing an opportunity to reflect on the benefits this has for people as well as the environment. But the lack of human activity has not been positive in all cases. Fewer workers managing nature reserves and other protected wildlife areas mean unwanted, invasive species are having a literal field day, which could cause serious harm to biodiversity in some areas. Additionally, there have been increases in poaching in Africa and India, which is being attributed in part to lack of tourism.
As we watch these ebbs and flows in the world around us, they highlight the delicate balance of our relationship with nature, which is also at the heart of the coronavirus debate. China moved quickly to ban the sale of wildlife for human consumption as a result of concerns that the virus may have crossed from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan. This ban might help address the source of a range of viruses, as SARS and MERS were also transferred from animals to humans as part of the food chain.
Green recovery, green jobs
Consideration for how to protect and restore nature while simultaneously rebuilding economies in the wake of the COVID crisis has been at the heart of many discussions around how public sector funding should be used. The massive influx of funds needed to get the world back on its feet presents an incredible opportunity to ensure deeper consideration of environmental factors in the process.
The CEO of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kristalina Georgieva has been clear about how international aid needs to be used saying, “We are about to deploy enormous, gigantic fiscal stimulus and we can do it in a way that we tackle both crises at the same time… If our world is to come out of this crisis more resilient, we must do everything in our power to make it a green recovery.”
This view is welcome. Millions of people will lose their jobs as a result of the virus. Creating new ones that create sustainable livelihoods and support the shift to a low-carbon economy seems like an obvious thing to do. Insulating homes and putting up solar panels are just two of the types of jobs that might become more prevalent to positive effect.
Chris Hewett, Chief Executive of the Solar Trade Association in the UK said: “The government must not miss this golden chance to place renewables at the heart of the recovery. Solar and energy storage in particular offer swift, job-intensive opportunities for growth….”
Another positive indicator in favor of increasing renewables capacity is clear evidence that the grid can handle a lot more power coming from renewables than previously assumed. Research across five countries in Europe during lockdown saw the percentage of renewable power on the grid increase to 70%. There had been doubts about the ability of the grid to handle this level of penetration from renewable sources previously.
The mantra around making all new infrastructure investments about low carbon options has been swirling for a long time — but given the amount of public funding that will be deployed in the immediate future, there is a real opportunity to make smart choices in the short-term that will provide benefits far into the future.
Leading global academics recently fed into a publication from Oxford University that reviewed economic stimulus packages and what will be needed to tackle the economic and environmental needs of an equitable low-carbon transition. The report contained five solid recommendations for policy makers, including: “clean physical infrastructure investment; building efficiency retrofits; investment in education and training to address immediate unemployment from COVID-19 and structural unemployment from decarbonisation; natural capital investment for ecosystem resilience and regeneration, and clean R&D investment.” These recommendations provide sound areas to focus fiscal support — both public and private — that are not just about getting people back to work and restarting the economy, but about a more sustainable reset of the economy and the provision of equitable livelihoods that serve people and maintain the natural environment that we depend on for a healthy life for the long-term.