6 minutes reading time (1215 words)

Building from the corona crisis towards a sustainable future

By Paul Bignell

As health practitioners, scientists, economists and those in government continue to navigate the country through the Coronavirus crisis some eight months on; fire-fighting simmering virus hotspots whilst simultaneously attempting to reinvigorate the economy; those tasked with looking further into a post-Corona future have so far been clear on two things. That 'individual citizens' need to have a voice in the recovery and that we should not see a return to a 'business as usual' scenario - socially or environmentally.

Speaking to me for Sustainability First, two House of Lords peers, Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, Chair of the Lord's newly established Covid-19 Committee, and Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, were keen to stress that individual citizens should be heard 'loud and clear' and that the Lords Covid-19 Committee should engage differently with people and communities up and down the country.

Experiences have differed widely throughout the pandemic and during the lockdown. Existing inequalities have been exacerbated and new ones exposed. Many businesses have struggled, faced with the painfully difficult decision of whether they carry on or not, whilst others may have benefitted via new incentives or business models brought about by the lockdown.

For some individuals, it may have presented a more acute sense of what is important; a chance to reflect on what is most meaningful in their lives, changing their behavioural patterns, whilst others may have found a greater appreciation of nature and how individual actions can have lasting impact – such as reduced commuting and car journeys leading to clearer skies.

Some have also begun looking at these matters, not as standalone or disparate issues, but through the prism of intersectionality, where race, gender, poverty and climate change issues are seen as being inextricably linked, rather than separate issues to be tackled individually.

These sentiments were especially true for cross-bench peer and entrepreneur, Baroness Lane-Fox: "I want to see that we bring in many different voices to this Committee and make it very easy for people to do so," she told Sustainability First. "It could be sharing a little video or a small blog or post on social media, poetry or art works.The Committee can cover any angle - from mental health, skills and jobs, to the green recovery."

The Lords Committee will first report back this October with a snapshot of what the public thinks the country should look like in a post-Covid world, before taking the views of professional organisations and academia for further reports.

"What I hope we can produce quite quickly is a resource of where people's anxieties and preoccupations lie," added Baroness Lane-Fox.

Sustainability First has already begun this process.At the beginning of lock-down the charity launched a nationwide Art and Essay Prize which invited radical ideas and visions in response to the question of 'How we build from this crisis to a more sustainable future?'The themes from the over 1,200 entries to the Essay and Art competitions aresummarised in a new Virtual Book Building from the Corona Crisis towards a Sustainable Future that also contains the impactful shortlisted art works.

As Chair of Sustainability First, Phil Barton, eloquently put it in the Book's Foreword, "… Sustainability First has actively sought to understand from young and creative people how the coronavirus has impacted our society, economy and environment. We want to learn from their experience and ideas as we seek to address other global challenges including climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and social inequality".

"We don't want to see a return to 'business as usual'. We want to see a fairer and more sustainable 'new normal' as we emerge from the corona crisis" added Phil.

This sentiment formed the basis for Sustainability First's recent submission of evidence to the House of Commons Post-Pandemic economic Growth Inquiry.

Certainly, after a decade of austerity, rising inequality and societal chasms opening up between many different social and generational groups along different fault lines, there is an opportunity amidst the terrible havoc and human cost that the virus has wrought upon our lives, for people to come together and decide how they want the future to look.

One of the key messages that Sustainability First wanted to communicate in their recommendations to the House of Commons inquiry was to put social justice at the heart of the recovery package. Never in a generation has society been so divided in so many areas; focussing on equality might help repair and rebuild a sense of social cohesion. Practically this could include representative national citizen assemblies and local listening circles, joined together in a new 'social contract'.

Radical green reskilling and retrofit programmes and bold low carbon infrastructure investment programmes undertaken at a local and regional level can give communities a 'sense of agency in their own futures' and make a green recovery real and tangible to people.Social housing should be targeted with an immediate focus on addressing energy and water poverty with grants and loans helping those on low incomes.

Lord Deben noted: "It seems to me that green jobs are the only growth area…We won't get the jobs back we've lost after Covid – that's not where the jobs are going to be. This is why we talk about resilience and sustainability. Sustainability starts with the principal that you're going to be here in ten years' time… The only sort of jobs that are going to be here in ten years' time are the jobs which actually take account of climate change and contribute to the battle against it."

A good way to start, Sustainability First believes, is by looking at our positive sustainable behavioural changes seen throughout the lockdown. For example, reduced pollution through reduced commuting and home working. These changes also need to be considered through a new lens and definitions of value – moving beyond a focus on GDP to also account for wider social, environmental and economic wellbeing.

"I think GDP is such a clunky measure, of course it's important, but it doesn't lay bare the enormous environmental impacts or social inequalities we face," said Lord Deben. "More nuanced metrics are needed post Covid-19. How we measure what success looks like in terms of the post recovery infrastructure building – social infrastructure as well physical infrastructure."

Lord Deben also spoke of his concerns around housing and the need for better quality housing that will, among many things, help tackle energy poverty for millions: "[House builders] built a million houses that are going to have to be retrofitted since the Committee on Climate Change first called on the government and builders to raise standards.

"I'm very concerned too that they're not even building to the standards we've got at the moment. The gap there is very significant and that can mean an extra £250 per year on people's energy bill."

Having fed the views of the young and creative people that entered its recent competitions on a sustainable and just recovery into the Covid-19 inquiries at the Houses of Commons and Lords, Sustainability First is planning a programme of work to address the topics raised in more detail.This will challenge decision makers in companies, regulators and government as to what can be done to practically implement change; to turn the ideas and visions for the future from young and creative people into reality.

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