A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Steer Economies Towards a "Green Recovery"
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
The following post was contributed by Kroc School Master’s in Peace and Justice alumna Susi Menazza ’03 (MA). She is currently the Director of Global Institutions at The Nature Conservancy.
Almost 9 months into this global pandemic, it is becoming harder to look forward to another day of virtual work. We all know the challenges. Yet, when a big part of your job revolves around large, in-person global conferences and they have all been postponed, you face the additional challenge of moving the needle without leaving your chair.
As the Director of Global Institutions at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I work with a policy team to share TNC’s expertise and provide technical advice to governments on nature-based solutions to issues like climate change and sustainable development. Nature is really a great provider of solutions that benefit everyone – forests filter water for millions of people, reefs act as seawalls during storms, protecting big cities, resorts and villages, and trees sequester more carbon for free than any expensive technology – but nature is not always governments’ first choice. That, however, is slowly changing.
My colleagues and I have worked internationally for many years and with most of us having previously been part of governments, the U.N., the World Bank and other institutions, we are familiar with all things related to international relations. We are used to windowless U.N. conference rooms and tedious discussions about policies and agreements. We complain about long flights and even longer days packed with meetings, too much coffee and bad sandwiches. We get frustrated by the political games that countries play, even if we understand why they do it. But we know most of this is necessary to have dialogues instead of wars and to slowly move that needle in the right direction.
So when a global pandemic hits in 2020, the year some major international progress on nature and climate change is scheduled to occur at global U.N. conferences, how do you keep that needle moving? The reality is, meetings can effectively take place online, but negotiations can’t. For all the progress and the technology, multilateral negotiations are still an old-fashioned game that requires in-person discussions, often in corridors, often through messengers, and the ability to “read the room”. Negotiations over Zoom are limited more than reading statements. In addition, government officials in many countries may lack reliable internet connections at home to carry out their duties virtually.
The lack of progress since Covid-19 pushed the world’s breaks in March is concerning – the changing climate continues to cause enormous damage and essential natural resources continue to deplete – but now it is aggravated by the unprecedented human and economic losses caused by the pandemic.
The last place you want to be when there is so much to do is on a chair in your own home.
Yet in the midst of all this chaos, the pandemic has also offered an unforeseeable opportunity – to strongly steer the economy in a new direction. As of early December 2020, some $20.8 trillion worldwide has been allocated to fight the negative consequences of Covid-19. Of those, about $10 trillion was provided to fight the medical emergency – to provide equipment, improve hospitals, recruit health workers, fund vaccine research – but the remaining $18 trillion has an economic focus. Those stimulus and recovery packages, as they are known, represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to steer economies towards a “green recovery”. We can simply allocate funding to some industry and continue to do “business as usual”, the same business that is causing so much damage and disparity, or we can rethink our economic and social systems and allocate government funding in a way that supports a more sustainable future for all of us.
So, what are those opportunities?
- Instead of simply bailing out airlines with no strings attached, for instance, some countries are requiring emissions reduction pledges or commitment to use biofuel or renewable fuel standards in exchange for loans.
- Instead of just supporting the can manufacturing industry, some governments chose to provide economic support for electric car development, green public transport and construction the electric infrastructure that will help cities transition to a more efficient, less polluting transportation system.
- Billions have been allocated for renovation of buildings using energy efficient materials or to subsidize solar installations on rooftops.
- Instead of subsidies, grants and loans to traditional agriculture (which is notoriously damaging to humans and the climate), some countries are allocating funding to help farmers transition to a more sustainable agriculture.
- Instead of supporting the use of fossil fuels, some governments chose to prioritize offshore and desert wind energy development, while support is provided to communities that rely on the coal and oil industry to build new skills.
- Where possible, jobs are being created to help with restorations of critical forests, rivers, lakes and coasts, combining two pressing needs – income for people and stability for those ecosystems.
While some governments are disregarding those options, others are hungry for a different future. The European Union’s entire $1.46 trillion Covid-19 recovery package does not contain a single measure that will have negative effects on the environment and several countries are modeling their own packages on that one. It’s not unlike what happens when your houses are severely damaged. Having the opportunity, we would rebuild them stronger and better. We would not invest in an old structure.
Suddenly, for those of us who have spent years working with governments on integrating sustainable solutions into their plans the doors are opening. The experience and knowledge of organizations like mine is really valuable now to those governments, as the data we have collected over the years on the benefit of certain choices and the economic return that some sustainable investments provide is being put to good use. Governments need this fast. No time for long global discussions in windowless conference rooms.
It turns out that during a global pandemic, you can still move that needle a little. Even from your home office chair.