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Environmental crises, a global pandemic, economic collapse... Time to work together to build back better.

The global COVID19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis are unprecedented, impacting on nearly every aspect of daily lives across the globe. The consequences are real and heart-breaking for the many families that have lost loved ones as well as those finding themselves without a job.

Infographic from @statisticallycartoon

It is clear that mammoth investment and collaboration across society are needed to rebuild the economy, create new livelihoods and address the system failures that have become painfully visible. We have a choice of what we want this ‘new normal’ to look like. This presents a unique opportunity to close the big gap that has opened up over the past few decades between public desire with respect to health and the environment and the political reality.

The UK public views the environment and health as the most important issues affecting the country, alongside Brexit. Environmental concern has grown steadily over the past few decades and is closely linked to social injustice and health issues. Climate change concern in the UK doubled in the past four years. Blue Planet II led to a public outcry on plastic pollution and people are worried about dying bees and air pollution. Yet real change on these, and other environmental issues, has been painstakingly slow. It has been challenging for governments and businesses to implement drastic changes without disrupting business as usual. And it has been hard to imagine that we could create the kind of seismic change needed to address all these environmental and socio-economic issues.

That has now changed. COVID19 has created an unparalleled disruption that forces us to rebuild nearly every aspect of our socio-economic system. And it has also shown us that changes that seemed unthinkable only weeks ago can, in fact, be made.

Luckily, we don’t need to create a new framework for these changes, it already exists: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These represent an urgent call for action by all countries, to end poverty and other deprivations, improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and preserve our oceans and forests.

 

Throughout the pandemic, Earthwatch’s Science, Policy and Innovation team have published a number of blogs exploring the impact of COVID19 on agriculture, freshwater resources, cities and citizen science. These are the top 5 changes we would like to see to ensure we build back better:

  1. Inclusivity, Participation and Wellbeing

The pandemic has, again, highlighted the disparities between different groups of people within society. Many of the most-needed “key workers” – cleaners, carers, drivers, supermarket staff, nurses – are among the lowest paid. These key workers are disproportionately from BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) backgrounds and have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Changes are needed across society to address this inequality and create healthy environments for all. The conservation movement and research community have a way to go to become truly inclusive and diverse. Creating access to nature close to all communities, creating diverse and inclusive work forces and addressing environmental injustice should be prioritised. 

The pandemic has highlighted the willingness of many people to come together, help out and conduct random acts of kindness. It’s these acts of caring – of listening and learning and giving – that we must nurture within our communities, to send rippling throughout our society. We must value them appropriately and ensure that they contribute to a system that works for everyone.

  1. Evidence-based decision making

We are following the science” emerged as the Government’s new catch-phrase at the start of this pandemic. It became clear that there is huge benefit in understanding the system in which we operate, base decisions on the latest knowledge and rapidly and continuously expand this knowledge base through new research. Such evidence-based decision making has been lacking in relation to climate change, biodiversity loss and the many other environmental challenges. To accelerate evidence-based decision making we need to invest in research institutions, strengthen national and international collaborations, openly share knowledge and best-practises, and create partnerships between businesses, policy and researchers.

We also need to ensure that everyone in society has at least a basic grasp of scientific principles. Strong science education is essential to create the next generation of evidence-based decision-makers. Once schools reopen, we have a real opportunity to revolutionise what we teach our children: to understand and appreciate nature; how to be analytical; how to be critical thinkers; how to collaboratively make decisions based on the best available evidence and how to respond when new evidence becomes available. This learning shouldn’t be limited to schools but extend into the workplace and continue throughout people’s lives, for example through participation in citizen science.

  1. Protect and enhance nature

Throughout lockdown, social media and news channels have been awash with stories of people rediscovering the joys of nature. Our recent survey shows that 59% of 2,000 respondents had spent more time with nature since lockdown. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ but essential for our physical and mental wellbeing and should be available on people’s doorstep, wherever they live. Healthy ecosystems and sufficient space for nature are also essential for the support of healthy wildlife populations and provision of the many ‘ecosystem services’ we depend on, including, flood mitigation, carbon storage and. Although there is still much speculation about the exact origin of the COVID19 virus, current evidence suggests that more space for wildlife populations and a ban on wildlife trade would have drastically reduced the likelihood of this pandemic occurring in the first. To restore and support healthy ecosystems and wildlife populations we need to expand and restore natural habitats and drastically curb pollution; from plastic clogging up our oceans, pesticides causing havoc among bees, to excess fertilizers suffocating rare plants and aquatic wildlife.

Nature-rich lawn, Earthwatch Europe

 

  1. Rethinking our economy and behaviours

It is clearer than ever that environment, health and economy are intricately linked. We should move away from the decade’s old dogma that sustainability and economic growth are polar opposites and that environmental ‘red tape’ hurts the economy. Instead, we should create a system that integrates and balances these aspects and maximizes long-term well-being rather than short-term financial gain.

A narrow focus on GDP as the key-performance-indicator of a country’s success fails to reflect how well we are looking after our planet for future generations, how equal or unequal resources are distributed among the population and how happy people are. There are already available, but they have yet to gain widespread political traction. A wider focus on long term human and environmental health could, for example, set the context to reshape agricultural supply chains – which are often designed to maximize outputs and efficiency. Instead, we should choose to increase resilience, reduce pollution and over-exploitation, and reconnect with local communities to create local employment and environmental stewardship.

We know that we need to rapidly decarbonise our economy to avert irreversible climate. Now that governments are spending billions to support businesses through the lockdown and recession they have a unique opportunity to leverage change by attaching energy transition requirements to their support. Leadership and vision alongside ongoing technical innovation could speed up our transition to renewable energy and create much needed new jobs in the clean energy sector.     

While we decarbonise our means of travel, the weeks of lockdown have also triggered widespread reflection on what travel we actually need. A shift in attitude from ‘doing things because we can’ to ‘limit ourselves to what we need’ could translate into a powerful societal shift towards more sustainable travel and consumption patterns.   

  1. High-tech for good

Creating a sustainable society is often portrayed as a retreat into a past, more simple way of life; but that would be a failure. Global circumstances are unprecedented and we need to find solutions that work for us now and into the future. Technological advancements have been mind-boggling and thoroughly changed every aspect of our lives in just one generation. We need to continue to create new technological solutions, integrate them with social innovations and use them to accelerate a transition to a better future. Engaged and involved citizens, open science and citizen science can help ensure that society as a whole contributes to and benefits from these advances.

Making these drastic changes won’t be easy. There are many vested interests and systems that will resist change. But it is now clear that an alternative system, in which we live healthier and happier lives in balance with nature, is possible. It is exciting to see that a broad coalition has emerged to drive this change and build back better with action undertaken by the likes of Aldersgate group and Wildlife and Countryside Link, as well as public appeals by top leaders.

Attendees using Earthwatch's Climate-Proof Cities AR App to understand how nature can work in urban areas, Earthwatch Europe 

As Earthwatch, we will do everything in our power to work together with businesses, governments, civil society and the NGO sector to achieve this mission. 

Toos van Noordwijk, Director of Science, Policy and Innovation, and Sasha Woods, Researcher for Impact and Innovation, Earthwatch Europe 

Originally published on LinkedIn

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