On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Global Compact, humanity faces the coronavirus pandemic, its greatest challenge since World War II. The coronavirus has disturbed the political, social, economic, religious and financial infrastructures of the world. We already call it the "old normal." This pandemic is the last costly warning that the system we live in is not sustainable anymore. It has caused the largest global recession in history, with more than a third of the world's population being placed on lockdown. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected the global economy would shrink by 3% in 2020 causing severe worldwide unemployment.
Half a century ago on April 22, 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection, the global population was just 3.7 billion. Since then, it has more than doubled, reaching 7.8 billion, with more than half living in cities based on a carbon economic model. By 2050, 3 billion people will be added, almost another planet of 50 years ago.
No return to ‘old normal’
Now, our small planet faces unprecedented environmental degradation, climatic change, social inequality caused by a dramatic increase in the human appropriation of natural resources to keep pace with rapid population growth, shifts toward higher consumption and higher demand for energy. We need to address these challenges and find sustainable solutions.
When the spread of the virus is contained, the global economy will bounce back. The International Monetary Fund predicts 5.8% global economic growth in 2021 as activity normalizes. There is a general consensus that after COVID-19, we will live in a "new normal." The type of "new normal" we are heading into is a still big question. The challenge we face is how to make the economic recovery from the coronavirus an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable one. We are forced to create a new world order by making sustainability a priority in the reconstruction. The pandemic should be considered an opportunity to make way for a new, environmentally friendly economy in order to work toward a better world – not to recover to the old normal but resetting for a sustainable global system in the post-pandemic era.
While we are all waiting for a return to a routine, we should not forget that "the normal" before the pandemic was the problem. Our economic model based on carbon consumption was fragile, and the planet was already suffering from climate change.
Now is the time for public-private partnerships to create a model that is capable of building an inclusive economy. This partnership infrastructure program through specific projects will create long-term and sustainable employment in the communities where they are located and provide opportunities for the transfer of skills, therefore assisting in the fight against poverty.
What is the urgent need?
Governments, businesses and society have become increasingly aware of the risks to the long-term well-being of the planet. As many countries started to emerge from the health crisis, they already started to work on stimulating their economies. While there are calls for a green recovery by a range of leaders, sustainability-focused stimulus packages by large economies remain ignored. On the other hand, brown stimulus measures, cuts in sustainability investment, weaker commitments to climate and nature action and the impact of low oil prices create new risks for the sustainability agenda. Brown stimulus measures might tip the world toward a vicious cycle of climate degradation, biodiversity loss and future infectious disease outbreaks – possibly with severe effects on the broader 2030 sustainable development agenda.
A possible governance
In these uncertain and unpredictable times, it is important to keep in mind the 2030 global sustainability agenda for our common future. The coronavirus crisis recovery is a chance to redesign a sustainable, inclusive economy, revitalize industry, preserve vital biodiversity systems and tackle climate change. The readiness for change that this crisis has brought could be leverage for our effort to reach the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Some reliable studies indicate that 65% of citizens in the G-20 support a green recovery in the post-pandemic world. As the globe stands on the edge of change, this is a pivotal moment for leaders to seize the opportunity to shape a better new normal. The many actions through the crisis have shown that businesses are an important part of the solution and that all our capabilities across nations must be rolled out to reach the SDGs.
EU-led economic resetting
As the need to fast-track structural changes toward a fossil-free, sustainable economic model increases, the European Green Deal, a set of initiatives by the European Commission could be the opportunity to jump-start this ambition. The European Green Deal is best described as a framework for tackling short-term economic needs with long-term sustainability goals. Its executive vice-president, Frans Timmermans, says: "The European Green Deal must become the cornerstone of Europe’s pandemic recovery. Rather than rebuilding the 20th-century economy, we must focus on spending stimulus money wisely and on preparing Europe for a competitive and inclusive 21st century, climate-neutral future."
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: "The recovery plan turns the immense challenge we face into an opportunity, not only by supporting the recovery but also by investing in our future: the European Green Deal and digitalization will boost jobs and growth, the resilience of our societies and the health of our environment."
The European Green Deal, launched in December 2019, outlines a comprehensive framework of regulations and legislation aimed at achieving the EU's targets of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a 50% to 55% cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030.
After the outbreak, in line with the European Green Deal, the European Commission adopted a comprehensive new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 to bring nature back into our lives and a Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system. The two strategies are mutually reinforcing, bringing together nature, farmers, businesses and consumers to work toward a competitively sustainable future.
The European Commission proposed a plan, named the Next Generation EU, to ensure the recovery is sustainable, inclusive and fair for all member states. It is centered on the European Green Deal as the EU's recovery strategy. All of the money raised through Next Generation EU will be channeled into:
A massive renovation wave of buildings and infrastructure and a more circular economy that brings local jobs;
Renewable energy projects, especially wind and solar, and kick-starting a clean hydrogen economy in Europe;
Cleaner transport and logistics, including the installation of 1 million charging points for electric vehicles and boosting rail travel for cleaner mobility in our cities and regions;
Strengthening the Just Transition Fund, which supports retraining, helping businesses create new economic opportunities.
Ultimately, these massive support measures will shape Europe's s economies and societies for decades to come for a greener, more resilient and inclusive future. It is also increasingly clear that no government or business can handle this alone – strong partnerships and deepened cooperation with the business sector is critical if Europe is to succeed.
Global and regional coordination remain necessary for managing emissions, environmental destruction and meeting the SDGs. The EU’s approach of linking its Green Deal to coronavirus recovery plans is an example of seeking to integrate the economic reboot with sustainability objectives, putting a particular focus on the role of technology and the circular economy.
As a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report underlines, "treating the sustainability agenda as a 'nice to have' may backfire." Individuals, firms and, more importantly, responsible leaders across the globe should not allow a brown recovery if they desire a greater long-term benefit for humanity. It can be achieved with green incentives, investments, expanded capacity and global commitment and coordination.
As Turkey's value chains localize and gain an advantage relative to China's exports to target markets, mainly the eurozone, it has to make sustainability and sustainable business practices a top priority. The Turkish private sector should take heart from the EU's renewed commitment to its ambitious Green Deal and seize the opportunity to re-engineer the way it approaches being competitive.
Recently, Turkey showed its willingness and preparedness to follow the sustainability agenda. By the end of May, Turkey saw an all-time daily record as 90% of power was produced from local, renewable resources. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) extended a $100 million loan to Türk Telekom (TT) to ensure that network upgrades aimed at further improving the sustainability of one of the leading telecommunications providers in Turkey continues despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
TT plans to fully integrate the universal principles of sustainability into its business model, strategies and corporate decision-making. The Sustainability Index, launched by Borsa Istanbul (BIST), aims to provide a benchmark for Borsa Istanbul companies with high performance on corporate sustainability and to increase the awareness, knowledge and practice on sustainability in Turkey. Moreover, the index is a platform for institutional investors to demonstrate their commitment to companies managing environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues with high performance.
Call for action
The defining political question today is whether we return to pre-coronavirus normality or build on what we have learned from the pandemic about what public policy can do to address the contemporary problems for a decent and sustainable society. Public processes for deliberating on agendas for post-pandemic reconstruction could mobilize social capital, created by the shared experience of environmental vulnerability and economic priority, so as to plan for much more ambitious policies on climate change and inequality.
*Political analyst based in Brussels