As the world begins to move on from the immediate response to COVID, the question of what the recovery will look like has become increasingly important. By now, the calls for a green recovery have grown into a burgeoning consensus, and we are left with a question of not if, but how, the UK incorporates sustainability into its recovery strategy.
At the IES, we are taking stock of what’s been said so far, and what questions the environmental sciences need to be asking as we collectively scrutinise the government’s plans. We cannot just think about these issues at a national scale, so this blog addresses not just what the UK Government has said, but policies and examples from across the world.
When scrutinising the responses of policy-makers during the recovery process, the IES sets out an approach which is as simple as ABCDE: the actions we take should be Ambitious, Broad, Considerate, Deliberate, and Evidence-based.
What has the UK Government said so far?
At the end of May, the Prime Minister set out his commitment for the UK’s recovery from COVID to be based on creating a fairer, greener, and more resilient global economy. With COP26 delayed by a year, the coming months will need to see an embeding of those values, rather than a period of delay where the environment is dropped from the agenda.
The Government has sought to align its recovery with simultaneous attempts to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets and the creation of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. Reskilling workers and reallocating resources towards clean energy are both fundamental to the UK’s long-term sustainability, and their importance cannot be overstated. In order to facilitate this, the Government has made a green recovery the focus of one of its 'recovery roundtables', bringing together business and academia to address economic recovery and the shift to net zero simultaneously with the response to COVID. However, to avoid displacing the burden of the crisis onto areas of the environment which will struggle to recover, the Government’s response will need to go further, accounting for more than the commitments it has previously made on climate change and economic transition.
Pressure has already been applied for more specific demands: prominent environmental scientist Jane Goodall called for the global recovery from COVID to move away from the over-exploitation of the natural world to improving conservation attempts and habitat preservation. Meanwhile, the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission are pressing for a faster move towards electric vehicles and energy efficiency, and an expedited timeline for reaching net zero.
With a significant range of considerations to be made, the Government and its recovery roundtable will need to use the broadest range of science possible.
What else do we know about the global recovery?
In order to ensure the best possible outcomes, this shared global challenge requires the Government to draw upon case studies from across the world of early attempts to incorporate green policies into the recovery.
For the EU, this has meant a €40billion Just Transition fund, €15billion for rural development, and a revitalised focus on renewables, hydrogen, and the circular economy. There are also examples from within EU countries of proactive approaches, with the French Government having set environmental conditions on its bailout of Air France and reiterated its commitment to long-term carbon neutrality.
Meanwhile, the UN Environment Programme will be looking at the issue on a more global scale. Including the environment in approaches to post-pandemic recovery is on the agenda for the international consultation of major groups and stakeholders ahead of UNEA5 in February, so we should expect the UN to play some form of coordinating role in certain actions around the recovery.
The differences in approaches across the world should serve as a reminder that whenever we implement policies where a major goal is addressing complex environmental and social issues, the policy instruments we use must be targeted to the scales which are most appropriate, and should be designed to address risks and opportunities with a view to the wider context of implementation. Hopefully, these global examples should remind the Government to consider these factors as the UK’s approach develops.
What are the IES’ five principles for a science-led green recovery?
If we are to ensure that the local, national, and global recovery creates a future which is sustainable, fair, and resilient, the environmental science sector will need to be proactive in taking a leading role in scrutinising the policy instruments of that recovery.
To address this need, the IES is setting out five principles which will give us the best possible chance for a truly green recovery. Ensuring that the UK’s recovery from COVID is sustainable and that it coherently addresses economic, social, and environmental needs could be as simple as ABCDE. We need to be:
- Ambitious in setting our goals and vision
- Broad and interdisciplinary in identifying risks and opportunities
- Considerate with our selection of policy instruments
- Deliberate in the stakeholders we work with and the spatial scales policies target
- Evidence-based at all times in the recovery process
As we advocate for science, scientists, and the natural world, we need to remember that political realities diminish the potential for action over time. Right now, there is a will for long-term sustainability, which may not come again for some time. If we are not ambitious in our green vision now, we might miss an opportunity to make a real difference.
The IES has always championed the ways in which different disciplines and areas of expertise can supplement and support one another. Now, when the world is at its most vulnerable, we need to ensure we share our learning and listen to one another to avoid creating existential risks. Being broad and interdisciplinary in our approach will also help us to identify where the recovery can help us make considerable environmental progress.
In times of crisis, it is only human to look for solutions as quickly as possible. And while we do need to be swift and agile as we plan for recovery, speed cannot become an excuse to make rash decisions without fully understanding the potential consequences. We should be considerate as we make plans for recovery, looking at the big picture instead of finding solitary policy instruments and seeking to replicate them across inappropriate scales.
This should also remind us that the pandemic has had differentiated and contextually-varied impacts. The recovery from COVID will need to account for this, and this will be especially true when it comes to addressing the complex systems that make up the natural world. We should therefore be deliberate and targeted as we select the scales where we want to intervene, and the stakeholders who will deliver interventions. With regard to the latter, we will need to recognise that the crisis has affected the delivery capacity of many organisations across the public, private, and voluntary domains.
By this point, it should be a given that evidence should underpin the response to COVID. The pandemic has shown us how important it is to inform decisions with science, and we have seen stories across the world which remind us the difference that scientific evidence makes to policy outcomes.
Although remembering the abbreviation ABCDE may be simple, the challenge ahead will not be. As always, the IES will be scrutinising the response of the Government to ensure that the best-available science is at the heart of the recovery, both in the UK and across the globe.