What a ‘green recovery’ might look like

“Whatever it takes!” has become a motto for saving the global economy as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the planet and shuts down entire countries. Governments are pushing unprecedented stimulus packages, now exceeding 10 trillion USD according to estimates from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

This systemic response to the shock the pandemic has brought upon the global economy is analogous to the idea of ‘wartime effort’ that has been revendicated by scientists and activists alike in what respects addressing the current climate and environmental emergencies.

According to the IPCC[1], global emissions should decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to have some level of confidence in limiting global warming to 1.5ºC by the end of the century. Roughly this means that the expected 7% decrease in emissions we are experiencing in 2020[2], needs to happen every year throughout the next decade. And that is, not taking into account the most recent assumptions about climate sensitivity, that can make the 1.5ºC scenario impossible to achieve.

This alignment is creating an imperative for convergence in tackling these two wicked problems. The recovery must be green. The coronavirus demonstrated that radical adaptation and behavioral change could happen in a very short period, and to ensure a planet that is habitable for future generations we need to act now with the understanding that what happens in the next couple years will command the course of history.

In a nutshell, this means that structural transformations need to happen in the way we produce and consume the goods society depends on the most. At the same time, governments create new jobs and restore the economic power of households and businesses. There are at least three areas where change might be especially relevant:

Resilient and restorative food systems

Our food systems are not sustainable, accounting for up to 37% of global GHG emissions[3], and land-use change, mainly due to agricultural expansion, is the leading driver of negative impacts on nature[4]. Ecology must be central in food production and ecosystems must regenerate and become more resilient to deal with the consequences of climate change. Agroecological practices that respect nature’s processes must be adopted widely while strengthening rural areas through the promotion of short circuits and competitive local economies. Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes are promising market instruments that pay landowners that prioritize positive outcomes for ecosystem services such as carbon capture, regulation of water and air quality, and biodiversity conservation. A good example is the Environmental Stewardship scheme, run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK Government that has been successfully paying landowners for management practices that provide ecosystem services since 2005.

Smart and renewable energy

Clean and affordable energy is at the core of the transition. Besides the independence from fossil fuels, large investments in renewable energy sources will create thousands of jobs. Technology has been advancing quickly both in efficiency and storage, but grids must become smarter and integrated. Mobility must become electrical and electricity decarbonized. Integrated technologies such as microgrids, AI, and blockchain could create ‘IoT energy systems’ that optimize energy use. The Innovation and Networks Executive Agency of the European Commission has been pioneering in supporting R&D projects in topics such as grid stability, local energy systems, and flexible energy resources.

Circularity in manufactured goods

Manufactured and transformed goods need to fully embrace circularity. Natural resources are increasingly scarce, and waste is a growing problem. Ecodesign can avert most of the negative environmental impacts of products and supply chains need support to change rapidly. Luckily the adoption of circular processes might turn a profit and entire industries are adapting their production models and implementing new technologies. The emergence of industrial symbiosis is a critical example that enables economies of scale. The Kalundborg Park in Denmark is known for becoming the first industrial symbiosis in the world whereby companies use each other’s by-products, water and energy streams. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, direct savings of €24 million per year can be accounted for by the nine partners of the project.

The concerted effort

Such an effort will need to be concerted among every sphere of society and integrated into every sector of economic activity, entire industries need to close doors, and many companies will have to reimagine their businesses. There will be winners and losers, and that knowledge might be the key to drive this collective process. This transition must create more inclusive and equitable societies and must be led by democracy and international cooperation.

The complexity of this issue goes beyond the architecture of our governance frameworks and requires bold and transformative action by everyone everywhere, cross-sector cooperation of businesses and governments is urgent and must be simplified through administrative reforms that empower public servants towards action.

We have done the math, and there are things we must do. Quoting the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall in a recent interview “We must change our ways.”

[1] IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press.

[2] Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

[3] IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press.

[4] IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 56 pages.

Image by Roy Buri from Pixabay

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