14 September 2020, 8:55 a.m.
Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous calls from international institutions, civil society, researchers and the private sector for countries to avoid a return to “business as usual” and instead to implement economic recovery measures that “build back better.”
Over the past decade, the term “build back better” has been used primarily in the context of recovery and reconstruction following natural disasters such as hurricanes, referring to the need to make preventative investments that improve resilience and reduce the human and economic costs of future disasters. Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the term has been used by representatives of the United Nations (UN), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and others when referring to recovery from the impacts of the pandemic.
This HillNote outlines progress towards achieving global commitments on sustainable development and climate change before the pandemic. It then describes selected international calls for a green, inclusive and sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic, recognizing that these terms can have various meanings and that they may be used interchangeably with the phrase “building back better.”
As countries design their plans for economic recovery from the pandemic, this could be a transformative moment, because the scale of spending required for recovery creates an unprecedented opportunity for systemic change.
Progress Toward Relevant International Agreements
International frameworks designed to promote green, inclusive and sustainable societies include the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) and the Paris Agreement. The 2030 Agenda, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, commits to an ambitious action plan for all countries to address a range of socio-economic and environmental objectives through 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the overarching objective of “leaving no one behind.”
In the 2015 Paris Agreement, signatories committed to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficiently to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C, or “well below 2 degrees,” above a pre-industrial average global temperature.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, progress to achieve the 2030 Agenda was slow and uneven. Experts raised concerns in four areas where indicators were moving in the wrong direction: inequality within and among countries, climate change goals, biodiversity loss and ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.
In September 2019, the UN launched a Decade of Action to help mobilize resources and increase efforts to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda. Yet, in July 2020, the UN Secretary General stated that the crisis caused by the pandemic “risks halting and reversing progress” on many of the SDGs and that it had exacerbated vulnerabilities and inequalities within and among countries.
The UN has noted that women, older people, youth, Indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, self-employed people and daily wage earners are among those disproportionally affected by the pandemic-induced economic crisis. The UN intends to continue to use the 2030 Agenda as a framework to support developing nations in recovering from the pandemic.
According to the Emissions Gap Report 2019 published by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in November 2019, if upheld, current global climate commitments will likely lead to a rise in global average surface temperature to 3.2°C above pre-industrial levels, well beyond the Paris Agreement‘s stated target of limiting global warming to 1.5oC.
A report published by Carbon Brief estimated that annual global GHG emissions for 2020 could be 5.5% lower than emissions in 2019 as a result of the pandemic-induced economic slowdown, but the UNEP report noted that countries would need to reduce emissions “by 7.6 per cent every year from 2020 to 2030” to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5oC.
Calls for a Green, Inclusive and Sustainable Economic Recovery
Calls to “build back better” when recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic often refer to the need for a green, inclusive and sustainable recovery. “Green” recovery may refer, for example, to economic recovery that reduces GHG emissions and biodiversity loss. “Inclusive” may refer to a recovery that reduces inequality, such as gender and racial inequality, considers the needs of poor people and focuses on achieving universal human rights for all. “Sustainable” may refer to components of the international agenda related to sustainable development or may imply an economic growth or recovery in which concerns for social equity, protection of natural resources, and social and economic development are embedded.
Countries such as France, Germany and South Korea have begun to announce policy measures designed to support elements of a green recovery. Similarly, countries such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland have highlighted messages related to inclusion – such as supporting youth – in their early responses to the pandemic.
A number of international organizations have called for countries to focus on green, inclusive and sustainable growth as they develop their recovery plans:
- Angel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, has recently stated that it is “essential that governments foster more resilient, inclusive and sustainable growth. The aim should not be to go back to normal – normal was what got us where we are now.”
- In May 2020, the UN Secretary General indicated at a meeting co-hosted by Canada that “[a]ll our efforts must go towards building sustainable and resilient pathways that enable us not only to beat COVID-19, but to tackle the climate crisis, reduce inequality and eradicate poverty and hunger.”
- The International Monetary Fund has called for countries to implement green recovery plans, while the World Bank has also called for a green stimulus package.
- In a communiqué published in April 2020 that includes its action plan for supporting the global economy throughout the pandemic, the Group of 20 (G20) has committed to supporting an “environmentally sustainable and inclusive recovery” consistent with the 2030 Agenda.
UN organizations such as UNEP, UN Women, the United Nations Development Programme and the International Labour Organization have also advocated for “building back better” in some form in recent months.
Civil society organizations have made similar appeals. In a letter to G20 leaders, 350 health organizations representing over 40 million health professionals made the case for a science-based approach to a “healthy recovery” that, among other things, reduces air pollution and GHG emissions and looks after vulnerable people. Amnesty International also called on G20 leaders to focus their efforts on a “just recovery” that supports workers, including women and marginalized groups, and those most affected by the impacts of climate change.
Similarly, many private sector representatives are advocating for a recovery that “builds back better.” In a recent Chief Economists Outlook, the World Economic Forum notes that countries “will have missed an important window of opportunity to transition to a more inclusive and greener growth path” if the economic recovery post-COVID-19 mirrors pre-COVID-19 patterns.
Additionally, in March 2020, the head of the We Mean Business Coalition – a group of non-profit organizations that engage with corporations to take action on climate change – wrote that “COVID-19 stimulus support should address health, the economy and climate together.”
Many international institutions are advocating for economic recovery packages that can help achieve progress on longstanding and globally agreed objectives, such as eliminating poverty and slowing the pace of climate change. This view has also been supported by civil society and several private sector organizations.
More than six months into the pandemic, many of the organizations that have called for a green, inclusive and sustainable economic recovery have offered policy recommendations and guidelines that each country can adapt to its specific context. Some of these recommendations and guidelines are listed in the “Additional Resources” section below.
Frank Rijsberman et al., Global Green Growth Initiative, GGGI Technical Report No. 13: Achieving Green Growth and Climate Action Post-COVID-19, July 2020.
International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Post-COVID recovery: An agenda for resilience, development and equality.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19), Building back better: A sustainable, resilient recovery after COVID-19, 5 June 2020.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19, Youth and COVID-19: Response, recovery and resilience, 11 June 2020.
Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), Shaping an inclusive, green and sustainable recovery, 24 June 2020.
United Nations, A UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19, April 2020.
United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative, Sustainable Recovery.
United Nations Environment Programme, COVID-19 Updates from UNEP.
We Mean Business Coalition, Build Back Better: COVID-19 Policy Response.
World Economic Forum, New Nature Economy Report II: The Future of Nature and Business, 14 July 2020.
World Economic Forum, The Great Reset.
World Economic Forum, The COVID-19 recovery can be the vaccine for climate change, 9 June, 2020.
Authors: Alison Clegg and Nadia Faucher, Library of Parliament