The challenge is not ‘to build back better’ but ‘to build forward better’ where the nature and climate nexus lies within the development paradigm.
This article is part of the series — Post-Pandemic Development Priorities.
How many hectares of land need to be restored; by how much should the emission of Green House Gases (GHGs) be reduced; by how much should loss of species be mitigated or by how much should pollution be decreased to create jobs, raise economic growth, and bring the economy on the path of sustainability and make living healthy in the post-pandemic era?
The world is not only asking these questions, but these questions are under the continuous scrutiny of world leaders when we are talking of “building back better.” It is a foregone conclusion that declining nature and loss are causing the spread of diseases like MERS, SARS, Ebola and COVID-19. Nearly 75 percent of new and emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature.
And, biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests. Productive land is being degraded, and wetlands are disappearing. Oceans are being choked with plastic. Air pollution is killing nine million people per year. The list can be disturbingly long.
The COVID-19 pandemic is primarily driven by habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss and domestication of the wild. It is the worst human and economic crisis of our lifetime, spreading worldwide with the global death toll reaching more than 500,000 people and 10 million confirmed cases of people.
The ongoing pandemic has devasted the world economy, the wrath of which is much deeper than the depression of the 1930s. And the hardest-hit regions are of Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia and Amazonia. This has cast a shadow on the achievability of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even before the pandemic, some of the SDGs were already behind schedule or off track to be met by 2030. The coronavirus crises pushed the achievement of the SDG targets off the rails.
The progress on making the world reach ‘zero poverty’ (SDG 1) was already behind schedule before the onset of the pandemic. The SDG’s target to end poverty was projected to be at 6% by 2030. However, COVID-19 caused the first increase in global poverty in decades, pushing more than 71 million people into extreme poverty (people subsisting on less than US$ 1.90/day) in 2020. This spike in poverty exacerbates already existing income inequality (SDG 10) and wealth inequality between nations and within them as well. The pandemic is an additional threat to the food security of the global masses, even though food insecurity was already on the rise pre-pandemic. About 25.9 percent of the population worldwide were affected by moderate or severe food insecurity pre-pandemic.
Even though the pandemic induced a 5 percent decline in carbon dioxide emissions compared with the same period in 2019, this will not be enough to achieve the targets set out by the Paris Agreement on climate change. An 8 percent cut on emissions must be met every year for the next decade to keep the world within the reach of the 1.5 C target of the Climate Agreement (SDG 13). The increased use of disposable precautionary items (masks and gloves) to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has led to an increased accumulation of plastic waste that is polluting the land, streams and oceans. Indeed, the pandemic has temporarily caused a decline in GHGs emission, and to some extent, it has brought back wildlife, but we all know this will be short-lived.
Therefore, the challenge is not ‘to build back better’ but ‘to build forward better’ where the nature and climate nexus lies within the development paradigm. The stiff challenge would be whether the struggling economy with massive unemployment and shrinking economic growth can have faith in nature? Can nature be a saviour of the economy?
Before we test this proposition, let us examine how the marginalised and poor have been impacted by this pandemic.
In the chaos of the pandemic, countries have used similar strategies that worked, such as extending universal health care systems, strengthening social protection systems, including cash transfers and food distribution systems for vulnerable households. However, the 1.6 billion impacted informal workers, mainly from developing countries, did not benefit from any social protection or cash handouts. The informal sector worker, marginal farmer, and non-farm rural workforce across the countries of South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa have been severely impacted, further exacerbating pre-existing inequality and marginalisation of the group. On the poverty, inequality and hunger scale, all our achievements have gone back to 1999 levels, meaning this pandemic has snatched 20 years from us!
As a matter of long-term strategy where the prosperity of people and planet are paramount, the post-pandemic recovery must stretch the intellectual imagination and come up with a plan where the occurrence of a pandemic caused by the dysfunctional relationship between nature and human activity is avoided. My suggestions would be:
i. The well-being of people — empowering them and advancing equality — should be in the centre of any COVID-19 recovery plan. Policies should be mission oriented while mobilising fiscal and social support to realise the SDGs.
ii. Strengthening human well-being and building sustainable food systems, achieving energy decarbonisation and universal access to energy, promoting sustainable urban and peri-urban development, and securing the global environment.
iii. Inclusive and accountable governance systems, adaptive institutions with resilience to withstand future shocks, universal social protection and health insurance, and more substantial digital infrastructure are essential for transformative changes and acceleration of progress in meeting the SDGs.
iv. Nature-based solutions to climate, land degradation and restoration should be prioritised in every sector of the economy, which will create jobs and heal the planet. Using blended finance would help meet the target of 350 million hectare forests by 2030.
v. Measurement of the progress of the economy should be through inclusive wealth (manufactured capital, human capital and natural capital) — relying on just GDP figures could be erroneous.
vi. Adherence to global biodiversity framework would help African and Asian countries, where most of the biodiversity are to be found. It would help in generating employment and inclusive economic growth.
vii. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the countries of the world have pledged over US$ 11.8 trillion<2> in relief and recovery packages, including US$ 3.5 trillion directly into sectors that have a large and lasting impact on nature and as a result, reduce the services that ecosystems provide. It is critical that stimulus packages reinforce the commitments world leaders have made to the SDGs.
<1> Views expressed are personal and not those of UNEP.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Pushpam Kumar is Chief Environmental Economist and Senior Economic Advisor United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He leads work on Response to COVID19 Pollution and Human ...Read More +