28 July 2020

Green transformation: Building Forward Better

Andrew Barnett reflects on a Prospect Roundtable which looked beyond the destructive nature versus business divide

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch) supported this Roundtable as part of our environmental work on citizen engagement on climate and marine conservation.

*This blog was originally published in Prospect magazine. Scroll down to watch the recording of the session*

Amid all the foreboding and uncertainty of this extraordinary year, a consensus is beginning to emerge, springing from millions of individual observations and realisations: people want things to be better and the vast majority of us are prepared to do something ourselves to help. We want a ‘new normal’ that balances inherent uncertainty about the future with valuing those aspects of life of enduring importance – our relationships with each other as humans and with the natural world that sustains human life itself.

Experiencing first-hand that radical change at speed is possible has also shown that we do not have to compound the losses of the global pandemic by just returning to our old ways. We can choose a route that is forward-looking, sustainable and equitable.

But if we are going to be and do different, we need to communicate differently. We need new paradigms, narratives and lenses to reflect the changes we want and help answer fundamental questions. We need to communicate in a way that resonates with the (often different) values of others; to talk – and walk – in others’ shoes and tell stories that are meaningful and potentially transformative. After all, the telling of stories and the shaping of culture is unique to the human race. If a healthy, functioning planet is essential for human survival, why is it so often presented as an either/or in relation to economic growth? Can nature and business ever really be decoupled? Why can’t we prioritise people and planet; jobs and nature; economic recovery and environmental recovery?

“We need new paradigms, narratives and lenses to reflect the changes we want and help answer fundamental questions.”

On 14 July, Prospect Magazine, supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch), hosted a virtual Roundtable with editors and journalists, scientists, economists and politicians, to ask whether it is time to abandon the old nature versus business dichotomy and what should be adopted in its place.

Reflection, connection and aspiration: lockdown visions of a better future

Months of lockdown and restrictions to our lives created a unique chance for refection. New conversations sparked up around our relationships with each other, with nature and with our planet. To track the evolution and reporting of debates on the intersection between COVID-19, the environment and the ocean during this unprecedented period, data from both traditional and social media was gathered and analysed in a research project funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. The findings, presented at our Roundtable, reveal a rapidly shifting communications environment playing out through three distinct phases.

First, it became clear that people were feeling an increased connection with nature and a deeper understanding that we have fallen out of kilter with the natural world. This manifested in both positive and negative ways as we followed coverage of the zoonotic source of COVID-19, struggled with missing green and blue spaces in the weeks of strict lockdown, and took solace in nature during daily walks. As the air literally cleared in our cities, millions witnessed wildlife thriving and wanted to see this replicated at a global scale. For the first time, I was aware of the birdsong.

“As the air literally cleared in our cities, millions witnessed wildlife thriving and wanted to see this replicated at a global scale.”

The next phase saw a build-up of aspirational voices calling for us to ‘build back better’, advocating for a post-COVID-19 recovery with environmental protection, climate action and social inclusion at its core. The data shows a widespread desire not to go back to business as usual. But, as many countries transition cautiously out of lockdown, the conversations on exactly how to ‘build back better’ have become increasingly technical. More reporting is slipping back into the old paradigm of people versus planet, with recovery framed as a choice between our economy or nature. Alarmingly, some governments are already rolling back existing environmental protections to privilege economic growth, and voices claiming that policies urgently needed to provide jobs and restore financial security are incompatible with environmental protection are gaining ground.

This is a moment of huge potential for positive transformation but also of high risk and even higher stakes. Decisions about how to shape our recovery will determine whether we transition to a sustainable society, succeed in cutting carbon emissions, and protect natural resources – or not. To prevent our feelings of connection and aspiration being subsumed by a return to an unhelpful and inaccurate pitting of people against planet, it is vital to present evidence of the economic benefits of Building Forward Better.

“It is vital to present evidence of the economic benefits of Building Forward Better.”

Making the business case for nature

Transitioning to a green economy is good for business. A new report on The Future of Nature and Business from the World Economic Forum drives this home by highlighting that, unless business rapidly shifts to nature positive pathways, US$44 trillion – over half of global GDP – will be at risk. And, as Akanksha Khatri, Head of the Nature Action Agenda at WEF and co-author of the report, told the Roundtable, though it is positive that the climate crisis is gaining media coverage, fighting climate change is not enough: we need to address all the key drivers of nature loss. That requires major shifts by businesses operating across the fundamental socio-economic systems related to land and ocean management, food production, and energy and extraction.

To help catalyse this transformation, the Future of Nature and Business report provides a blueprint of 15 systemic transitions that would allow business to generate up to US$10.1 trillion and create 395 million jobs by 2030, while building a resilient, nature-positive global economy. Capturing this US$10.1 trillion demands an investment of US$2.3 trillion. A huge amount, Akanksha Khatri admits, but not when compared to the US$2.2 trillion US COVID-19 stimulus package, and a small price to pay for preventing the collapse of the natural systems that all our economies and businesses rely on.

Generating the momentum needed to Build Forward Better requires new narratives that show how nature and business fit together. Torsten Thiele, Founder of Global Ocean Trust, called for a stronger focus on practical, profitable blue and green nature-based solutions that can deliver both risk reductions and business opportunities. For example, coastal areas facing increasing storm risk can invest in blue natural capital and infrastructure by restoring wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs. These win-win solutions reduce the threat to lives and property, protect businesses from loss, enhance biodiversity and can even store more carbon. To replicate them at the global scale, we need more stories – in the media and the boardroom – about how nature-based solutions make good business sense.

“We need more stories – in the media and the boardroom – about how nature-based solutions make good business sense.”

People, politics and priorities

As the only elected official on the Roundtable, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas MP pulled no punches about the tough trade-offs involved if we are to avoid jumping out of the COVID-19 frying pan into the climate change fire. She also insisted that the public should not be underestimated. They are often well ahead of governments and the pandemic has made it even more painfully clear to people that business as usual is not working.

The good news for Caroline Lucas is that there is a real appetite for a green transformation and that the desire to take a green route out of the coronavirus crisis is backed up by a new report by Oxford University, co-authored by Lord Nicholas Stern and Professor Joseph Stiglitz, among others. Their analysis of COVID-19 recovery packages suggests aggressive investment in green skills and employment opportunities could create more jobs, buffer the impacts of the pandemic, and deliver a safer climate future.

But that does not mean it will be easy. Ms Lucas stressed that we need to move away from the fairy tale that production and carbon emissions can be decoupled at the scale and speed required. Prioritising green investments won’t cut it. We need, she said, to repurpose our economies and that means governments must make trade-offs, for example in short-term economic growth.

Our acceptance of dramatic restrictions to combat COVID-19 shows that people will change if faced with a crisis. Professor Dan Laffoley, a marine scientist with the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, told the Roundtable that science should be better at communicating the climate and nature crisis. Using the right language is critical. The scale of change we are unleashing on our planet is unprecedented, yet our response is piecemeal and hampered by short-term political distractions and vested interests. Science can help break down the nature versus business narrative that obscures the fact that we are all in the same boat.

COVID-19 has taught us that we cannot have everything we want; we cannot always have more. Policymakers, business and science can all contribute to ensuring we do not miss this opportunity to act to protect both people and planet.

Reporting for duty: the role of the news media

The media is a vital public service; the fourth pillar of a functioning, free society. To fulfil this duty in a world that is floating in a sea of opinion and misinformation, news journalists should focus on delivering trustworthy facts. That is the firm view of Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian, who reminded us that the pandemic is proving yet again that journalism can be a matter of life and death. He warns that the news media is in serious trouble and all journalists need to ask themselves what business they are in: entertainment or news? To survive in this age, reporters must create new rigour around their craft and become trusted sources of reliable information – currently in dangerously short supply – rather than trading primarily in opinion.

Nature loss and climate change are also a matter of life and death, but the environment rarely makes it onto the front page unless it is positioned as part of a conflict. Stephen Brown, Editor of Politico, is afraid that the old battleground between industry and ecology will resurface as different sectors compete for the trillions of dollars sloshing around in post-pandemic recovery funds. Case in point: the conflict between coal and climate causing Poland to push back against the European Green Deal, which led to the transition fund to help countries ditch coal being whittled down by half in the contentious negotiation of the EU’s €750 billion recovery plan. Stephen Brown would rather see the revival of the lively, inter-generational battle symbolised by the Fridays for Future school strikes that energised climate debates before being shut down – along with schools themselves – by the pandemic.

But, ideally, the media should find new ways to tell the story of how business, policymakers and communities can come together to Build Forward Better without resorting to conflicting dichotomies. Even more important for Natalie Nougayrède, former editor of Le Monde and Guardian columnist, is that journalists recognise that we are headed for stark realities, mass job losses and deep recession. When covering the environment, they need to be sensitive to people’s fear of losing livelihoods and strive to convey their voices.

“When covering the environment, journalists need to be sensitive to people’s fear of losing livelihoods and strive to convey their voices.”

Protecting nature is not just good business; it is central to the fight for democracy and human rights and for our individual freedoms. Planetary health is indivisible from human health and happiness.

As the nature/climate debate touches every aspect of our lives and future, it cannot and must not be siloed. That is the challenge facing journalists, scientists, policymakers and businesses as we embark on the vital mission to Build Forward Better for people and planet.