Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth: How can Covid-19 be a motor for sustainable development?

Will the pandemic nudge our political and business leaders into making life on earth viable or will they just want to ‘get back to normal’? asks Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth.

2021 could be the year that decides the fate of people and the planet. It’s a huge thought but before being upended by coronavirus, 2020 was to be when humankind set course to keep our climate safe and stable, restore nature and address poverty. Put another way, we would be pursuing sustainable development instead of the usual here-today-gone-tomorrow short-termism.

If things work out 2021 will now be the year that tests whether our leaders have learnt both from the virus and from the evidence on how our treatment of nature and climate, which scientists say was triggered by the destruction of nature, is making life on earth harder to sustain.

Or will the rush to get ‘back to normal’ trump everything?

A triple emergency

Climate, nature and poverty are big issues on their own right, but the evidence is that they are all linked. A thriving natural world keeps us supplied with quality food, water and materials. The amazing ‘bio-diverse’ web of life also protects us from the effects of a changing climate such as increasingly violent storms, floods and heat.

Long before the pandemic, the world’s leading scientists were telling world leaders to curb climate disrupting activities including those that also ravage nature, for example by clearing forests and emptying seas of life.

The irony is that how we produce food is causing so much harm to our natural world that we are undermining our own ability to feed ourselves. Soil quality and water supplies are being stretched and forests and other natural ecosystems are being transformed into mono-crop fields that are hostile environments to anything resembling nature.

Having ignored decades of scientific advice on climate and nature, in 2020 our leaders started listening to and even relying on scientists. Politicians needed the boffins to dig them out of the hole they had created by failing to plan and to act on in time.

Getting back to ‘normal’

A return to some form of normality would be welcome but if getting ‘back to normal’ means more bad governance and climate-busting, nature-ravaging economic activity then a new normal is needed. But we knew that before the virus.

Here is where sustainable development thinking can help because it means things like:

Better governance: governments making timely decisions based on evidence and science, not whim and dogma.

Better use of good money: avoiding spending money in ways which undermine other aims. For example, governments are still giving huge subsidies to oil and gas companies to produce the fuels that are locking us into costly climate change. Meanwhile other parts of government are funding ways to keep our climate safe.

Businesses that meet real needs: changing the rules for how companies operate so that they cannot profit from activities that make it harder to protect nature and our climate.

Improving how cities work: with most of the world’s population now living in urban areas how cities are designed and operate has huge implications for people and for the demands cities make beyond their boundaries. Better design, land use and energy, water, food and waste systems can all use sustainable development thinking to re-wire where and how we live.

How food is produced: we already know how healthy, nutritious food can be grown without denuding soils and water and habitats as modern intensive farming has done. Sustainable development thinking can empower people to produce more of their own food and to support healthy food production by others.

International cooperation: More than ever we need to address issues together including by sharing knowledge and skills to increase nations’ capacity to meet their own needs.

The world has paid a profound price for failing to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021 we all need 20-20 vision to ensure we set the right course out of the pandemic and to make life on earth viable – sustainable even. We have a decade to do it. What are you going to do?

Friends of the Earth is an environmental campaigning community dedicated to the wellbeing and protection of the natural world and everyone in it. We are pleased to have been able to collaborate with them in the writing of this piece of reflexion. A big thank you to Manon Erimo, one of incredible research leaders, for enabling this collaboration.

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This project aims at exploring the implications of Covid-19 for economic development, with particular insights on green growth alternatives and social development.

Project incubated by International Impact.

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