Can Britain build back better after Covid-19?

Institutions, multinationals and the public all want the government to adopt a green recovery plan that is sustainable, resilient and fair, writes Nick Hughes.

When a cause unites parties as diverse as the World Economic Forum (WEF), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) it pays to sit up and take notice.

As thoughts turn to the challenge of rebuilding Britain’s economy in the wake of the damage wrought by Covid-19, ministers are being urged to seize the opportunity to deliver a green recovery and turn the pandemic into a defining moment in the fight against climate change and social injustice.

By targeting public stimulus packages and private investment towards projects that prioritise environmental protection, public health and job creation, proponents say the recovery will be sustainable while reducing the UK’s vulnerability to future crises.

Commenting on the recent launch of the CCC’s 2020 report to Parliament, chairman Lord Deben said: “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together; it’s there for the taking.”

Hundreds of blue-chip businesses are already on the same page. Companies including Asda, Lloyds Bank, Aviva, Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) and Compass Group have signed up to various open letters to the prime minister whose thrust is the same: deliver us a green Covid-19 recovery plan.

“The past few months have demonstrated how quickly and efficiently we can all pull together, as a community, but it has also given us an opportunity to step back and assess how we can all support a green recovery, and rebuild the economy in a way that is cleaner, sustainable and more resilient,” says Julian Hunt, vice-president, public affairs and communications, GB at CCEP.

And the movement extends beyond the UK. More than 150 companies with a combined market capitalisation of over $2.4 trillion have signed a UN-backed statement urging governments around the world to align their Covid-19 economic aid and recovery efforts with the latest climate science.

So why is there such consensus behind a green recovery? What might it look like in practice? How will it impact the food sector? And, most crucially of all, will the government deliver it?

Policymakers ill-prepared

A virus like Covid-19 is difficult to protect against. It is fast-spreading; many of those infected display no symptoms; and it carries a high risk of repeated waves. Yet forceful arguments are being made that the pandemic has illustrated key weaknesses in the current economic paradigm including, in the words of WRAP, “a chronic lack of resilience to large disturbances”.

Prefacing its recent report on environmental breakdown, the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) pulled no punches when it accused UK policymakers of being “woefully unaware of and ill-prepared for parallel threats posed by the climate crisis and destruction of nature”. It argued the pandemic “serves to remind policymakers of the risks inherent in the destruction of nature and of the fragility of humanity to such exponential threats”, adding ominously that “the environmental crisis is an even more extreme moment”.

For proponents of a green recovery, a return to pre-pandemic normality is not a viable option. Instead, the priority is to tackle the root causes of environmental and health crises alongside the challenge of rebuilding the economy.

Organisations are rallying around the term ‘Build Back Better’ to capture the essence of a vision that, beyond the usual roll call of environmental charities and left-leaning think tanks, carries the support of institutions like the WEF and a host of multinational corporations.

In a recent WEF blog, María Mendiluce, interim CEO of the We Mean Business coalition, wrote: “We cannot go back to business as usual and lock in old habits, pollution, spending and infrastructure that will inflict further harm on the very people, communities and economies that these stimulus packages seek to support.”

Guiding principles

Proponents claim the economic benefits of investing in a green recovery are compelling. More than 50 leading charities, including WWF and the National Trust, uniting under the banner of The Climate Coalition, say it could support at least 210,000 green jobs across the country and bring benefits of £90 billion a year to the UK economy.

As for the question of what a UK stimulus package should support, different stakeholders have subtly different asks; however, there is clear consensus emerging on certain key principles for a green recovery.

The first is that government investment must align with the UK’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Another is that fairness is embedded as a core policy principle so that a recovery prioritises the most vulnerable in society and levels up social and regional inequalities, with jobs lost today replaced by sustainable jobs in the future.

There are calls too for a move towards a more circular economy, through the adoption of innovative new business models and a much greater focus on waste prevention, reuse and recycling.

Actions taken now should also bolster resilience to future shocks, including climate change and future pandemics.

Finally, there is strong agreement that public money should not support industries or businesses that cannot demonstrate credible plans that align with a target for net zero emissions.

Ambitious policies

Translating these principles into ambitious policies is where the task becomes harder, but again there are clear areas of agreement, all of which have implications for food and hospitality businesses.

Energy networks will have to be strengthened with investment in renewables.

Nature-based climate solutions that sequester carbon, improve biodiversity and strengthen flood protection should also be prioritised.

The built environment will need to change to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely. At the same time, the transition to electric vehicles will need to be hastened with charging infrastructure developed to support widespread adoption.

Future buildings will need to be low-carbon by design, while for businesses such as hotels, with existing large investments in bricks and mortar, measures will need to focus on improving operational efficiency of buildings. “Funding for retrofitting and investments in renewable energy to make it a viable alternative for all will be key in helping our industry transition and move towards a green recovery,” says Karina O’Gorman, director of corporate responsibility at InterContinental Hotels Group.

A circular recovery

Both WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), an advocate for a circular economy, are calling on policymakers to make circularity central to their post-pandemic plans, a concept characterised by a shift from selling single-use products to models that prioritise reuse, repair and remanufacturing. WRAP wants the government to support the widespread adoption of circular business models by introducing targeted policy, financial, business support and citizen engagement measures, including a legal ‘right to repair’ items such as electrical products.

The EMF, meanwhile, believes circular economy principles should also be applied to food production and distribution. Jocelyn Blériot, the foundation’s executive lead for international institutions and governments, wrote recently that the current industrial agricultural model “yields outputs of questionable quality, relies on fossil fuels and practices that are damaging to ecosystems, and is built around supply chains that involve long-distance transport that make it vulnerable to border closures”. She argued it was timely to explore the potential of “large-scale investment in regenerative, peri-urban production, together with digitally enabled precision agriculture”.

Diet is another issue that is set to feature in discussions around a plan to ‘Build Back Better’ with obesity identified as a key risk factor in susceptibility to Covid-19. In its specific advice to DEFRA on climate priorities, the CCC called for policies that encourage consumers to shift to healthier diets, including public sector leadership and development of an evidence-based strategy.

The CCC is also pushing the waste agenda, calling for a ban on landfilling of municipal and non-municipal biodegradable wastes from 2025; a target for a 70% recycling rate by 2030 in England within the Environment Bill; and mandatory reporting of food waste by businesses, building on WRAP’s existing voluntary scheme.

Food businesses endorse action

Food and hospitality businesses are prominent among those endorsing ambitious action on social, environmental and climate goals. And although many companies will encounter risks in a vision for a green recovery – shifts to remote working, for example, will present a threat to the economic sustainability of caterers that service corporate offices, and restaurants, pubs and cafes based in business districts and reliant on white-collar trade – the consensus is clear that a return to business as usual is not an option.

Senior executives from Burger King, Asda, Britvic and CCEP were among over 200 businesses, investors and business networks to sign a letter to the prime minister calling on his government to deliver a Covid-19 recovery plan that builds back a more inclusive, stronger and more resilient UK economy through policies that drive investment in low-carbon innovation and focus support on sectors and activities that can best support sustainable growth.

Compass Group, Nestle UK & Ireland and BaxterStorey, meanwhile, were among more than 150 signatories to a letter urging Boris Johnson to use the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to consolidate and future-proof Covid-19 recovery plans in the UK.

Companies know they cannot deliver a green recovery alone. As CCEP’s Hunt says: “Individual businesses can play their part; ultimately, though, it needs to be a collective effort. Together with government and our peers, we have the opportunity to drive the sustainability agenda forward and really shift the dial when it comes to making long-lasting changes which result in a stronger, more resilient economy.”

Whether the calls of businesses will be heard in Whitehall remains to be seen. In a big set-piece speech delivered last week Johnson invoked the spirit of Franklin D Roosevelt in setting out a “new deal” for the country. But the Rooseveltian scale and ‘greenness’ of his ambition, which included targets to plant 75,000 acres of trees every year by 2025 and £40m to boost local conservation projects, faced criticism from many of the groups demanding a green recovery. “This is a far cry from the sustained green recovery that many have been clamouring for, and misses many of the important ingredients needed to invest in net zero infrastructure and restore nature,” wrote Ruth Chambers from the Green Alliance.

In the weeks and months ahead the prime minister will be reminded at every turn how support for a green recovery is near unanimous. “We know a green recovery makes economic sense and is supported here in the UK and overseas by leading businesses, academics, ministers and health representatives,” says WWF chief executive Tanya Steele.

The public can also be added to the list. The first report from the UK’s Climate Assembly UK found 79% of assembly members agreed that steps taken by the government to help the economy recover should be designed to help achieve net zero.​

The threat from Covid-19 has not yet dissipated. But the pressure is already ratcheting up on the prime minister and his government to deliver the green recovery the country demands.

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