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Long term responses to the pandemic: an opportunity to transition to a more sustainable economy?

  • Long term responses to the pandemic: an opportunity to transition to more sustainable economy?
  • Governments across the world are taking measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, including substantial economic relief packages. This crisis provides opportunities to design responses with sustainability and resilience in mind.

The current coronavirus pandemic is affecting people and societies across the world, and it’s quite clear that it will have a long term impact on the global economy. While the urgent thing now is to address the immediate consequences, recovery investments can move away from business as usual and lay the foundation for a green, circular economy. As Christiana Figueres, former head of UN Climate Change and an architect of the Paris Agreement, commented, “We have a massive crisis = opportunity on our hands. We cannot afford to waste it. Recovery must be green.”

We are witnessing an unprecedented release of funds, and extraordinary collaboration efforts at the global level. It’s time to reflect on risk and resilience. Victoria Crawford, Environmental Resilience Project Lead at the World Economic Forum has outlined these and other changes brought on by the pandemic that can help us seize this moment and rebuild our society and economy to be more sustainable.  She writes: “If the pandemic teaches us to acknowledge our vulnerability to high-impact shocks such as pandemics and climate-related disasters, we will be infinitely better placed to prepare for them.”

The energy sector is in the line of fire as usual when there’s talk about climate change and decarbonising the economy, with calls for economic relief that contemplates phasing out fossil fuels. But other sectors need a closer look. As the authors of the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR) released on March 22nd noted, while the need to combat climate change through better management of the water cycle is well recognized, it is not being translated into reality. Meanwhile, water is the medium through which climate change will affect societies and the environment the most, noted Richard Connor, Editor in Chief of the report.

The water sector is a key one to ensure resilience to global threats: The 2020 WWDR highlights the links between water and climate change

We need to prioritise water: the water sector is a key one to ensure resilience to global threats. The 2020 WWDR highlights the links between water and climate change. Furthermore, the link between water and health has always been clear, but the current coronavirus crisis has brought it to light: 40% of humanity cannot wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease.

The many connections between the health of our planet and human health have long been known. The current pandemic has put the spotlight on one of them: the key role the planet health plays in the spread of zoonotic diseases (those originating in pathogens that transfer from animals to humans). “The wild must be kept wild”, in words from UNEP’s head Inger Andersen. The expansion of human activity has squeezed nature into a small corner of the globe, putting it under increasing stress. Human encroaching into natural habitats — through urbanisation, habitat loss and fragmentation, and wildlife trade — increases interactions between animal hosts and humans, Ms Andersen notes. Furthermore, as the climate continues to change, changes in temperature, humidity and seasonality have an effect on the survival of microorganisms in the environment. In fact, the UNEP outlines 5 factors that are leading to an increase in zoonotic diseases: land use changes such as deforestation, intensive farming, wildlife trade, antimicrobial resistance, and climate change.

The positive side of the COVID-19 emergency is the response shows societies are capable of transforming themselves almost overnight

The positive side of the COVID-19 emergency is that the response shows that societies are capable of transforming themselves almost overnight. The world’s richer inhabitants have shown they are able to slow down consumption, with less non-essential shopping and less travel. These are the same types of changes necessary to address climate change. “We have a responsibility to recover better” than after the 2008 financial crisis, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, adding that “we have a framework for action – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. We must keep our promises for people and planet.”

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