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A green recovery: growing back better

May 2020

Covid-19 is a natural disaster that brought the world’s economy to its knees. We may never know for certain that this disease was caused by human activities, but we do know that industrial farming, the illegal wildlife trade and deforestation all multiply
the chances that a low-risk, high consequence misfortune like this one will happen—and happen again.

We also know that business as usual is contributing to the risk of ecological-economic problems. Greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural intensification and over-fishing are all gradually stacking the odds against us. One day, unless we change course, they will lead to catastrophe.

The interconnectedness of the global economy means that even localised effects can spill over into international downturn. If one country’s agricultural system is pushed to breaking point, it will have implications for others too.

The interconnectedness of global ecology means that the way we live here in the UK will spill over into other ecosystems, as our consumption stamps its global footprint around the world. Recovery from this crisis surely means rebuilding in a way that guards our economy and society against those future risks. The implication of the interconnectedness of ecology and economy is that we cannot do it alone.

Luckily, the interconnectedness of global politics means that we can make a difference.

Next year

The best chance for a lasting recovery is to agree global action. “Super 2020” (the year when the world was meant to approve new treaties for oceans, nature and climate) must now turn into “Stellar ‘21”, when every Chancellor in every Exchequer makes environmental improvement an economic priority.

As the interim report of the Dasgupta Review notes, “the current high rates of biodiversity loss pose a major risk to our economies and our way of life,” and “urgent action is needed”.

Economic recovery must mean a UNFCCC agreement to limit global warming to less than 1.5⁰C. Economic recovery must mean a Global Ocean Treaty to enable protection of our High Seas so that marine life can be replenished. Economic recovery must mean a new Nature Agreement that sets an inviolable global goal to restore habitats and species and “bend the curve” of nature’s decline by 2030.

The hiatus in multilateral talks gives the Government an opportunity for a bold signal of intent. A statement from the Prime Minister that economic recovery from the covid-19 crisis will not be complete without a new Covenant for Nature would set the tone for global talks. An Agreement that sets an overarching goal of restoring species populations by 2030, supported by meaningful protection for 30% of land and sea by 2030 would be just the ticket.

The hiatus also gives the Government time for the diplomatic efforts that will be needed. With the COP-26 presidency and the Government’s leadership position in the Global Ocean Alliance, the UK is positioned to lead in agreeing three strong treaties. The final ingredient is domestic leadership.

The prisoner’s dilemma

Until now, progress in these multilateral environmental negotiations has been tentative. Although the benefits of collective agreement are compelling, individual countries have often been unwilling to take the first steps, nervous to impose changes on their own economies without knowing others will follow. Like teenagers at a dance, we have stood back, reluctant to make the first moves. But everyone is watching.

A leader is needed and all eyes are on Westminster.

This realisation had already begun to dawn that restoring nature makes economic sense. The Environment Bill, the 25 Year Plan and the Agriculture Bill had begun to set a trajectory for environmental improvement. But now, the calculation has been decisively proven. The covid-19 crisis has tipped the balance in the argument to show that environmental improvement is individually rational for each country, as well as collectively:

(1) Poor environmental quality imposes huge costs in healthcare and lost productivity. Coronavirus has illustrated that investment in access to greenspace, waterways and healthy air will bring rapid productivity dividends and savings for the NHS.

(2) Critical sectors of the economy depend directly on nature. Tourism (10% of the economy), food and farming (3.7 million jobs) and fishing (crucial for coastal communities) all depend directly on our soils, our landscapes, our fish stocks. Restoring our land and seas makes good business sense.

(3) Nature can defend against natural risks. Last year was the second worst on record for flood and drought. Floods alone cost £2.2billion a year. People are still suffering in the aftermath of storms Ciara, Denis and Jorge. Investing in natural climate solutions is the only way we can meet our net zero climate change goals to mitigate those climate risks, as well as being a cost-effective contribution to our long-term economic resilience.

Supercharging change

Now, those green initiatives need to be resumed and supercharged.

In the weeks ahead, Wildlife and Countryside Link members will set out the proposals for a green recovery, developing many of the themes from Green Alliance’s excellent webinar event:

(1) We will make the case for a rapid injection of nature in our most nature-deprived areas.
(2) We will argue for a kickstart to habitat creation to lock away carbon and boost our resilience.
(3) We will show that investment in natural assets, like soils and fish stocks, is good economic sense.
(4) We will make the case for an Environment Bill that sets strong targets for nature, including ocean recovery and a reduction in our global environmental footprint. The time may have come to set a firm domestic target to reverse species loss by 2030.

By focusing on a green recovery that combines low-carbon solutions with a plan to restore nature, the UK can lead and signal to other nations that we must reset our economic relationship with nature. With the right diplomatic effort behind it, this could secure the support needed for strong global treaties.

In doing so, we will secure a resilient recovery for ourselves and, more than that, we may help the whole world to do the same.

Richard Benwell is Wildlife & Countryside Link's CEO
Twitter: @RSBenwell