Societal perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis and potential scenarios for recovery

Sustainable Development Goal(s): 17. Partnerships for the goals

Priorities for change: Transversal
Societal perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis and potential scenarios for recovery

Today, Earth Day 2020, The Shift and The Club of Rome – EU Chapter co-organised the webinar Societal perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis and potential scenarios for recovery. The virtual discussion forcefully highlighted the gravity of the current crisis moment and how this context presents a historical crossroads as we need to decide on the recovery measures that we take.

An emergence from emergency

The excellent key-note speech by Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Co-President of the Club of Rome, the incisive statements by the Panel (consisting of Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director, European Environment Agency, Sophie Souied-Soussan, General Manager Unilever Belgium & Luxemburg, and Mathias Bienstman, Policy Director, Bond Beter Leefmilieu), as well as the very lively discussion during the Q&A stressed that we must avoid a recovery that would simply reinstate a business as usual economy. Sandrine opened the debate by asking the crucial question “What do we value most?” This seemingly straightforward question exposes the complexities underlying the policies that will need to govern our recovery trajectory. The common ground identified during this discussion indicates that we must strive for an “emergence from emergency” that reinforces societies’ resilience in the face of crises, meets the basic needs of all, and lowers societies’ stress on Planetary Boundaries to within carrying capacities.

The decade of action

The Club of Rome has argued for decades that the socio-economic systems our societies relied on prior to the COVID-19 crisis did not sufficiently account for the interdependence between People and Planet, which causes both social and ecological crises. The current tragic and extra-ordinary circumstances enable a refocussing on activities that embed this linkage much more deeply. Recognising this, members from Generation T and Junior Enterprises Europe raised the potential of circular business models to minimise our impact on the planet during the Q&A. Mathias Bienstman also proposed that this entails coupling an obligation to pay taxes and “environmental conditions to any bailouts” that are adopted as crisis measures in the short-term. In a broader sense, this means that we must transition from a degenerative to a regenerative economy during this decade of action, so described by the United Nations Secretary-General.

A need for fast change

Hans Bruynlinckx affirmed that “we definitely need fast change” and a broad combination of regulation and deregulation is needed to tackle this crisis, which is interlinked with the social, ecological, and climate crises. This means both stepping away from policies that privilege certain market dynamics and technologies as well as sending a strong public signal. Such an effort requires significant political and institutional changes as well as creating “major investment trajectories that are already planned and being discussed.” This is already taking shape in such initiatives as the European Green Deal or the implementation of the United Nations Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

It also necessitates deeper cooperation and partnerships between different sectors and countries to collectively design responses. As Sophie Souied-Soussan emphatically stated, “businesses must be part of the solution” in catalysing the investments into change, further incorporating multi-stakeholder approaches, and setting more robust sustainability targets. Taking these steps will protect value chains, employees, and consumers, rendering businesses more resilient in the face of future crises. Sophie also pointed out how international cooperation needs to be intensified since “the greatest impact, as unfortunately often, will be felt in the most vulnerable countries.” It is thus imperative that government institutions and businesses do not reduce their development aid, philanthropy, and investments in developing countries. Evidently, this crisis clearly shows how we are densely interlinked with one another globally.

Partnerships are more important than ever

As such, the discussion reinforced The Shift’s conviction that in order to change business models and transition to more sustainable societies bridges need to be constructed between different sectors and actors. Forging partnerships for change is more important than ever and The Shift remains committed to connecting all types of change agents in pursuit of sustainable development. As Sandrine concluded, we all need to join forces to “put in place the key short-term intervention points that are already going to build a foundation for the long term … our moonshot is not going to the moon but actually protecting this planet that we call home, which is very important on this Earth Day.”