The crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that things can and must be done differently.

EEB Secretary General Jeremy Wates invites us to dare to create a new and better normal that respects people’s quality of life and the environment.

As the weeks have turned into months, life during the COVID-19 pandemic has raised far-reaching questions about our health, our environment, our economy and our society – indeed, our way of life. The forced dislodgment from our normal behavioural ruts has, if nothing else, shown us that things can be done differently.

Yes, there is a widespread yearning to get back to normality, or at least some aspects of normality: the possibility to be close to loved ones, to mingle with friends in a bar, to play sports on a beach, and much more. But we also hear many voices, personal and political, insisting that we should not go back to business as usual, urging that as we emerge from the pandemic, we do not just restart the economy – we re-set it.

Green recovery

In May, more than 1.6 million people signed a petition calling for a green recovery from the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. This particular petition was targeting the EU but it is a sentiment shared by citizens in many OECD countries. Many people have – sometimes guiltily, thinking of the overcrowded intensive care units just a few blocks away – relished the chance to breathe clean air in the heart of normally polluted cities or observe nature venturing back into suburbia or further, emboldened by the lack of hustle and bustle. And most realise that it should not take a pandemic to achieve this.

Similar calls have been made by diverse groups of stakeholders extending way beyond the usual suspects. For example, the European Alliance for a Green Recovery brings together MEPs from different parts of the political spectrum – government ministers, businesses, trade unions, NGOs and think tanks – around the demand for a sustainable exit from the pandemic. Returning to business as usual is not an option.

Life as we know it

What was business as usual before the pandemic? Clearly, a lot of things. But just looking at the big picture we are facing two existential crises – meaning crises that potentially threaten the existence of our civilisation. The picture does not get much bigger than that. On one front, we have global temperatures continuing to rise at an alarming rate, with the chances of keeping warming within the 1.5°C or even 2°C specified in the Paris Agreement, and thus remaining within a safe operating space for humanity, diminishing rapidly as each year passes.

On another front, we are witnessing a level of species extinction that has not occurred in more than 65 million years, exacerbated by but largely independent of climate change – a crisis in its own right. Whereas climate change enjoys high-level political attention, at least in most countries, the biodiversity crisis has yet to have its “Paris moment” – something that it was hoped would take place this autumn at the now-postponed Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP-15). Alongside these, toxic chemicals have spread to the remotest parts of the planet, plastic waste fills our oceans, and deforestation and soil erosion continue apace. Pre-pandemic business-as-usual was manifestly failing to address these multiple crises in an effective way – not to mention the many social problems such as poverty, inequality and human rights violations.

These crises are still there, and while they do not have the immediacy of a major public health emergency, it is essential that as we plan our way out of the pandemic, our compass is firmly guided by the need to re-orient our economies in a more sustainable direction that prioritises well-being and quality of life over GDP.

It may be a cliché to say that every crisis is an opportunity but – well, clichés got to be clichés for a reason. And this is an opportunity to change direction for the better, most immediately by ensuring that the vast sums of public money being injected to save economies are directed in line with sustainability principles.

Debt to the future

Public money should be used in the public interest. Where it is used to keep commercial enterprises going, it is more than legitimate to attach conditions to such funding, whether in the form of grants or loans – conditions that serve the public interest.

As in many cases, future generations will be the ones repaying the debt, their interests should be paramount. And the youth marches of 2019 have shown that the climate and biodiversity crises are, logically, at the top of their concerns. Thus, any bailouts to airlines, car manufacturers and other polluting industries should be coupled with strict environmental and social conditions. Unfortunately, too often, this has not happened.

The impact of the pandemic on the functioning of environmental organisations is another area of concern. For example, the restrictions on holding public hearings has reduced the possibilities for public participation in certain environmental decision-making processes. Some NGOs also face financial difficulties due to the lockdowns, losing much-needed revenue from e.g. fundraising events. Governments should bear this in mind when designing recovery measures.

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This article was first published by the OECD Forum Network on 5 June 2020.

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