If you are on a train about to crash over the edge of a cliff, jumping off can seem like a drastic course of action. The alternative is much worse. The transformative change we need to alleviate environmental crises may also seem drastic, but it is just as essential. It is also urgent: once you’ve already fallen off the cliff, it’s too late to invent the helicopter to get yourself back to safety.
The COVID-19 recovery is a crucial opportunity to begin the transformative change essential to humanity’s future.
Why do we need transformative change during the recovery?
Despite progress over recent decades, public understanding of the crises we are facing remains poor. People understand we are facing calamity if we fail to stop changes to our climate and the decline of ecosystems, but largely, ‘what that action should look like’ is missing from the public consciousness. Whilst every individual does not need a comprehensive understanding of every environmental policy instrument, a lack of common understanding has ingrained a ‘small changes’ mentality towards environmental policy.
In reality, far greater scope and scale is required; incremental, atomistic changes are not sufficient. The UN’s Sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) makes clear that achieving global sustainable development ambitions are reliant on transformative change which brings together vision, strategy, innovation, and experience. Their assessment of the rate of change on the pathways reliant on 'incremental policies' clearly show that these are insufficient to meet our goals. Basic social and production systems need to alter in fundamental ways, including the frameworks, practices, and values which underpin them.
At the European level, the EU’s ‘European Environment - State and Outlook Report’ (SOER) also champions the call for transformation of “the key societal systems that drive environment and climate pressures and health impacts”, including food, energy, transport, and the built environment.
The SOER highlights that the most important factor in the challenge ahead is the complex and multiple ways that sustainability challenges are tied to lifestyles, economic activity, and jobs and earnings across the value chain. For that reason, whole system approaches are needed and cooperation across scales will be crucial.
So what does this mean for the recovery from COVID-19? For the UK, as well as the rest of the world, the recovery from the pandemic cannot just put us back on the course we were already following. Responding to COVID-19 without addressing unsustainable systems may put us back on track economically, but that track is still leading on a crash course towards the cliff-face of unsustainability.
As the IES recently recommended in our evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Inquiry on greening the COVID-19 recovery, it will be vital to take action against the entrenchment of compound risks associated with degrading natural systems to avoid the risk of worsening system vulnerabilities, in line with the precautionary principle.
What would transformative change look like?
There are two common factors for how we must address each of these unsustainable systems – we need to change behaviours and we need investment from central governments. The recovery from the pandemic is a unique opportunity for both, because governments are already investing to support an economic and social recovery, and because people are already adapting lifestyles in the wake of widespread measures to contain the pandemic.
The recovery from the pandemic presents us with a clear crossroads. A sustainable approach will give us a sustainable society where food, energy, transport, and other systems are accessible, resilient, and deliver multiple benefits. An unsustainable approach will leave us contending for generations with the risks and weaknesses which we have locked into systems, with consequences for our health, our resilience, and our security. Transformative change during the recovery is not an option; it is a fundamental necessity if we are going to continue to thrive and survive.
Investment during the recovery must not support unsustainable industries at the expense of more sustainable options. When jobs are being lost and pressure is being placed on all parts of the economy, subsidising unsustainable sectors will to some extent come at the expense of sustainable alternatives. Financial bailouts and support packages for sectors with unsustainable processes at their core will create stranded industries that prolong environmentally or socially damaging processes and will ultimately require further investment for future transitions.
Governments' bailout packages for unsustainable sectors should instead take the form of retraining to support ‘just transitions’ towards more sustainable alternatives. This approach combines economic and social considerations alongside environmental ones. In the short-term these may need to exceed current investment in support schemes, but the longer term cost will be significantly smaller, as these transitions will need to take place eventually, and there may be first-mover advantages from investing early.
The full scope of the changes we need to make will be impressive, but not insurmountable. Our first step must be to adopt a systems mentality to our recovery from the pandemic: we cannot look for solutions to short-term problems without sight of the bigger picture and the challenges which still lie ahead.
How can the environmental sciences help the Government to start the process of transformative change?
At the start of our Green Recovery blog series, we set out five principles which should form the basis of any science-led sustainable recovery from the pandemic. Since then, we have gone into more detail about why evidence-based transformative change is needed. As the blog series comes to a close, we wanted to conclude with how those of us working in the environmental sciences support that transformation and ensure that the UK does what is necessary to achieve a sustainable recovery from the pandemic.
There are two important ways we can help to build momentum for positive change. The first is to take part in reactive scrutiny of announcements and policies, and the second is to be proactive about sharing our expertise and the emerging risks, challenges, and opportunities within our own specialisms.
When it comes to scrutiny, we have been using our five principles for a science-led green recovery to assess whether any policy announcements will productively contribute towards a strategy which results in a sustainable, fair, and resilient society. We will also continue to keep you updated on developments from the Government and elsewhere through our blogs and analysis, ensuring IES members are well-equipped with knowledge to support our collective scrutiny.
As an organisation, the IES has a particular strength in its interdisciplinary membership. With members working in specialisms across the environmental sciences, we also have a wide view of the environmental policy landscape. To help ensure the best possible recovery from COVID-19, we need to ensure all these disciplines are listened to, and that IES members are able to speak up about emerging risks, challenges, and opportunities in every part of the sector.
If you want to get involved, you can tweet us (@IES_UK) using the hashtag #GreenRecovery to let us know your thoughts on the kind of transformative change we need during the recovery from the pandemic. You can also get in touch directly if you have concerns about policy developments during the recovery, or suggestions for how the IES can continue to spread the voice of science, scientists, and the natural world.
The banner photo is of the Sevenoaks railway accident of 1927. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.