COVID-19 response: An open letter to global governments

27 April 2020

Environment Ministers from 30 countries are this week meeting in a two-day conference online to explore how to organise a green economic recovery post COVID-19. The ‘Petersburg Climate Dialogue’, hosted by the UK and Germany, will also aim to agree on how to proceed with ambitious carbon reductions despite the postponement of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference.

Here, Dr Sally Uren OBE of Forum for the Future pens an open letter to governments outlining a wish list of sustainability considerations that must be central to coronavirus recovery plans. 

Dear Governments

Most of you have been amazing over the last few months. You have stepped in and taken bold, rapid and decisive action in the face of an unprecedented crisis precipitated by COVID-19.  Whilst there is much to learn, you have shown us citizens the power of strong government, and the profound influence you have on all of our lives.

As countries begin slowly and carefully to explore how they best relax lockdown rules, there is an unparalleled opportunity for governments at the local, regional, national and international level to maintain this positive presence in our lives. COVID-19 has unlocked us from the straightjacket of a high carbon economy and created a limited window of opportunity to invest in one that is truly fit for the future.

Many are waking up to the fact that we cannot go back to ‘pre-COVID’ ways; instead using the crisis as a springboard to accelerate the sustainability movement. Climate change must be integral to global COVID-19 solutions and responses, and I have five wishes designed to help ensure that.

First, continue to build and maintain your understanding of the interconnectivity and interdependency of social, economic and environmental issues. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us, in ways which leave us in no doubt, that human health equals economic health equals planetary health. The three are intricately linked, as witnessed by the profound domino effect continuing to transform the world we live in. There is a dangerous dichotomy emerging: do we prioritise human health or climate change? This is misleading; it is not an either/or. Please do not go back to dealing with these issues in separate departments that don’t talk to or consider one another.

Second, continue to work and innovate with the private sector.  This will be critical to ensuring a robust economic recovery and continued innovation in everyday services.

Third, make your economic stimulus packages sustainable and equitable. We need a green recovery in which we:

  • Invest both for the long-term, and in the industries that are so vital to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals.  This crisis has accelerated the development of the green economy, health tech and more. It has driven a digital transformation at a speed never seen before. It has also accelerated the likelihood of stranded assets in carbon-intensive sectors.
  • Invest in the infrastructure needed to help individuals lower their own carbon footprints and to protect them from the worst impacts of climate change. The opportunities are endless: low carbon, affordable public transport; programmes to insulate all public buildings and people’s homes; nature-based flood protection measures that support biodiversity as well as protecting homes and industry; rewilding on an unprecedented scale.  These initiatives will provide jobs and opportunities for people to skill up and get back to work
  • Consider linking bail-outs/fiscal support (however you wish to label the injection of public money into the private sector) with an expectation of an aggressive path to decarbonisation. For sure, consider supporting aviation, but ensure your money comes with a requirement to rapidly move to fossil free fuels.
  • Focus on creating support for the most vulnerable in our societies.  COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on huge structural inequalities and the disproportionate impact of shocks to our systems. At the same time as you ask for rapid decarbonisation of the recipients of your public funds, ask the same for progressive labour laws and the right to decent work.

Fourth, ensure multilateralism stays, countering the gradual shift over recent years towards populist policies and nationalism. COVID-19 has shown us the benefits of international co-operation and this will be absolutely critical to maintain if we stand any chance of dealing with the climate crisis, which will affect all nations, big and small, rich and poor.

My fifth wish: continue to relax crippling bureaucracy and red-tape to allow pre-competitive collaboration within the private sector. Just look at what is happening to accelerate the production of a vaccine and antibody testing: arch rivals working together against a common enemy to deliver faster and more efficiently. Our current anti-trust legislation was borne from good intent, but it is now woefully outdated by a decade or more. It’s time to put away draconian rules designed for bygone eras. We need to see the pre-competitive space for business to collaborate. As a result, we will see much-needed solutions brought to market quickly to protect shared global supply chains and their workers. But it starts with the right enabling policy and legislative context.

Finally, while the world’s economy has been shut, the world’s environment has started to benefit, with wide-ranging reports of smog-filled city skylines clearing as pollution levels worldwide dramatically fall. We need decisive action to help ensure we keep our clean air and our clean water.

COVID-19 has devastated the economy. It’s cost countless lives. But terrifyingly, it is a mere rehearsal for what awaits us if our response fails to consider climate change and make substantive moves to counter the imminent environmental threats confronting our planet. The world is facing a reckoning and governments have a choice: retreat to business as usual and sow the seeds for yet more social, economic and environmental crises, or pass transformative policy that will take huge strides to avert them.

What choice will you make?

Read next from Sally Uren: COVID-19: a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency? 

If you are concerned about COVID-19 and need further advice, seek information from your local government and health providers. Links to advice for our office locations are as follows: India, United Kingdom, United States, Singapore. Uncertainty and crises can be challenging for everyone, please also take care of your mental health during this time, with more information on actions you can take to do so here (from a UK source).

Photo by Kristaps Grundsteins on Unsplash