A Green Restart for the World
Written by Alexis Leroy, CEO ALLCOT
The coronavirus pandemic has been a huge wake-up call for the world. In one short month, large swathes of the economy have either closed or been forced to scale back significantly. Air travel is virtually non-existent, private transport has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, and retail has almost entirely closed its doors.
And while we have been self-isolating at home, it’s given us all a chance to consider what we’re giving up, what choices we can’t make, and even whether we’d choose the same things again whenever restrictions are lifted. The lockdown has also turned into a fountain of ideas; ideas on how we can take this opportunity to rebuild our economies in a more sustainable way.
To be fair, some blueprints for a sustainable future are already on the table. In the US, the Green New Deal harkened back to President Roosevelt’s plan to bring the country back from the Great Depression of the 1920s. The 21st century version focused on climate change, the biggest challenge of our times, as well as social and economic inequality.
In Europe, the newly-elected Commission brought forward its own Green Deal last year, which is even more ambitious than its US counterpart. The EU plan seeks to turn the bloc’s entire economy upside down, refocusing on sustainability, climate, transitional measures to diversify and modernize the economy and offer opportunities for all. The proposals on both sides of the Atlantic are fortunate in their timing, as we grapple with “the fastest, deepest economic shock in history”. A lot of thinking has already been done.
For Asia, too, the pandemic represents an opportunity to embark upon the same shift, away from mimicking the West and towards a more sustainable, self-reliant economic model. Indeed, it may be the east’s only hope, if the kind of proposals that we read today are put into action elsewhere.
The liberal market-based economic model has been around for around 300 years. Globalization was the last great leap forward for the neoliberal interpretation, and coronavirus’ rapid expansion around the world is the warning that we cannot continue as we have done. The economy that evolved in the 18th century took the world as it saw it. It did not experience, as we do today, the immense impact of industry and business on our earth and our climate.
Pollution and resource scarcity were not considered problems 300 years ago, and all our efforts since then have been too modest, too piecemeal, and have been largely shrugged aside by the interests of old-world business models.
Yet today, we understand how our economic model impacts our health, our well-being. We can quantify the harmful effects of air pollution, just as we can quantify the cost of natural disasters.
With all this knowledge and understanding, gained through the immense technological advances of just the last 50 years, we have an opportunity to set a new course for the coming decades.
What must be done?
At a macroeconomic level, the world needs to commit, again and with greater force, to the purpose of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. We need governments to line up behind these aims, to make pledges that are ambitious, believable and achievable, and develop the pathway towards achieving the ultimate prize.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have a simple target: “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. They consist of 17 ambitions including reducing inequality, clean water and sanitation, climate action, responsible consumption and production, and zero hunger. All of these goals can be achieved with a thoughtful approach to re-building our shared economy.
And thanks to technology and understanding, progress towards the SDGs can now be quantified. Health, education, economic opportunity, stable societies, and even gender equality can be measured and assessed. And this quantification of achievement can now be rewarded. For the first time in our economic history, intangible impacts are now becoming tangible items on balance sheets. Efforts such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure are slowly moving the needle on bringing externalities like greenhouse gases into the realm of real costs. And in the same way, improving our collective health, safety and prosperity can also be rewarded, in lower external costs (like carbon emissions and businesses losses) as well as in lower human costs.
The Paris Agreement has one, just one, simple goal: to ensure that by the middle of the century all our emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by sinks that absorb those same gases. Again, this is a target that we can achieve if we plan carefully and put in the work, the investment, and the research to make it happen.
What will we gain? We will begin to return our climate to a state where catastrophic weather events are not “normal”, where deforestation does not rob peoples and species of their home, where water stress does not force mass migrations.
At a national or even multinational level, how can we make the changes that the future requires of us?
A Green Rebuilding
As we eventually emerge from the shadow of Covid-19, economies will need government help to re-start. Already we have seen billions of dollars, or euros, of pounds, spent to assist businesses and people to get through the lockdown. And we will see billions more spent to assist businesses to rebuild and restart their operations. We should make sure that we do not focus on short-term survival but on long term sustainability.
While we defend the independence of the private sector, when it comes to receiving publicly-financed assistance, the private sector should be required to follow public policy. Instead of spending 90% of the assistance on propping up existing business models, shouldn’t our leaders be looking at making our economy more resilient?
Financial assistance should come with conditions. Industrial companies should be required to make improvements and changes to their processes that match the SDGs. Where a factory now buys power from a gas-fired plant, any government assistance should require that it buys renewable power – a simple and achievable solution that comes at no additional cost.
Manufacturers should be required to use recyclable packaging, ensure the products are recyclable or reusable, and that their processes are as clean as possible. Regulations could be stiffened to require those producers to take legal responsibility for all lifetime waste associated with their products.
Commercial businesses should re-examine their practices and see what flexibility they can build into their operations. During the pandemic, we have seen an explosion in the use of video conferencing to maintain social links. Millions of people have been working effectively from home, rather than commuting to offices. Do we all, as employers *and* employees, need to commute to offices that use even more resources?
Instead of global supply chains, the business should be encouraged to look locally for materials and supplies, thereby reducing transportation emissions and pollution, and supporting the local community and its economy. And do we need to travel quite so much for business or for pleasure? There already is a growing awareness of the impact our travel habits have on the environment and climate, but the recovery from this global shutdown offers a real opportunity to wean ourselves off needless travel.
Lastly, how can you and I as individuals translate these goals into action on the ground?
As consumers, we can make more responsible choices and look after our outputs. When we buy, we should buy responsibly: are products reusable, recyclable and re-purposeable? Do our products even need packaging?
When we do consume, are we consuming more than we need? Are the electricity, gas, and resources that we use going from renewable sources or are we drawing on finite resources like oil or coal? Do we need to drive all the kilometers that we do? Is our flight necessary? Are we lighting and heating our houses responsibly?
Alternative products already exist for many of us, as we all know. But, critically, alternative choices exist too. It’s time we began to exercise more robustly our power of choice and, as individuals and consumers, ramp up pressure on business, on policy-makers, and on each other to think about the impact we have on our home.
The free-market economic model that was born in the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and which has lasted 300 years, is not fit for the 21st Century and the challenges it presents. We must not insist on a return to business-as-usual.
We, therefore, call on business around the world to acknowledge that the rebuilding of our economies in the wake of this pandemic cannot merely return us to the way things were before. The private sector must accept its historic role in bringing us to this point, and take on both the responsibility as well as the opportunity to fix our problems, even where the government is slow to act.