Are lower pollution levels really the silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic?

By Rob Dellink, OECD Environment Directorate

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to dominate headlines with distressing messages about the negative effects on health and the economy. But sometimes a positive message creeps through.

The long months of lockdown and reduced economic activity have reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. In many areas, improved air quality has been hailed as a key side benefit of the crisis.

But as economic activity picks up again, are lower pollution levels really the silver lining of the Covid pandemic?

The short answer is no, and there are at least three reasons for this.

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Climate resilience is essential for a sustainable financial system

By Michael Mullan, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Lightspring

At the start of the 2000s, consumers were surprised to discover that some of their “beef” lasagne was instead made out of horsemeat. Several years later, the global financial system was brought to its knees by the discovery that some triple-A securities were made out of distinctly subprime ingredients.

These are clearly very different situations, but the underlying point is that people need to know what they are getting for their money. With what we know – and what we are already seeing – about climate change, we need to know if people’s savings for the future are being invested in ways that are undermining that future. This is no longer viewed as a purely environmental issue: it is now firmly within the mainstream of discussions about the financial system.

A central focus of these discussions is on the financial system’s role in enabling the transition to net zero emissions, but it is also essential to prepare for the climate impacts that are already being felt. We need to become more resilient – better able to plan, prepare, absorb and adapt – to the growing physical impacts of climate change.

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La résilience climatique est indispensable à un système de financement durable

De Michael Mullan, Direction de l’environnement de l’OCDE

Crédit image : Shutterstock / Lightspring

Au début des années 2000, les consommateurs ont eu la surprise de découvrir que leurs lasagnes “au boeuf” étaient parfois faites avec de la viande de cheval. Des années après, le système financier global s’est retrouvé à genoux après qu’on ait découvert que certains titres notés triple A contenaient des ingrédients clairement spéculatifs (« sub-prime »).

Ces situations sont bien sûr très différentes, mais l’idée sous-jacente est que les gens ont besoin de savoir ce qu’ils achètent avec leur argent. Compte tenu des connaissances sur le changement climatique, et de ce qui en est déjà visible, nous avons besoin de savoir si l’épargne accumulée pour le futur est investie d’une manière qui met ce futur en danger. Aujourd’hui, cette question ne se limite plus au domaine de l’environnement : elle est désormais bien présente dans le cadre général des discussions sur le système financier.

L’un des points focaux de ces discussions concerne le rôle du système financier pour rendre possible la transition vers un monde à zéro émissions nettes ; il est néanmoins tout aussi indispensable de préparer le monde aux impacts climatiques que l’on peut déjà ressentir. Le monde doit devenir plus résilient – davantage capable de prévoir, de préparer, d’absorber et de s’adapter aux impacts physiques croissants du changement climatique.

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Can modelling help better understand the transition to a more circular economy?

By Ruben Bibas, Jean Chateau, Rob Dellink, Elisa Lanzi, Eleonora Mavroeidi, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: ESB Professional

Economic models have been used for decades to quantify the future costs and benefits of climate policies. With increasing interest in the concept and implementation of a circular economy, the question is: can models also help better understand the transition to a more circular economy?

The answer is yes! Models can provide a better understanding of the link between economic development, materials use and the environmental pressures linked to the extraction, processing and disposal of materials. These include greenhouse gas emissions, pollution to the soil, water and air, and toxic effects on humans and aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Furthermore, models can be used to analyse the costs and benefits of resource efficiency and circular economy (RE-CE) policies, showing the trade-offs between economic consequences and the reduction of the environmental impacts.

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Greening the recovery from COVID-19: how sustainable will it be?

By Andrew Prag, OECD Environment Directorate

When COVID-19 began to spread around the world, it brought with it many uncertainties. But one thing was quickly clear: the depth of the economic and social crisis was going to require massive government intervention to rescue jobs and livelihoods, and to reinvigorate economic growth.

A wide chorus of voices, including the OECD, quickly began to call on governments to think beyond a pure economic recovery as they prepared these interventions. Study after study pointed to the opportunities for investing in greener technologies and infrastructure as a way to not only create jobs and reignite growth, but also to finally shift us onto a more sustainable path: an opportunity to combat climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental crises head-on. And as the pandemic had brutally reminded us of our fragile relationship with, and dependence on nature, the case had never seemed clearer.

Encouragingly, many governments appeared to heed the call, with leaders lining up to commit to a “green recovery” and to “building back better” through the national and sub-national stimulus packages under preparation.

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The value of water: putting together the puzzle pieces for sustainable investment

By Nachilala Nkombo, WWF-Zambia Country Director, Kathleen Dominique, OECD Programme Lead Financing Water, and Andre Fourie, Global Director Water Sustainability, AB InBev

Image credit: Kathleen Dominique / OECD

Last month, the theme of World Water Day — “valuing water” — encouraged everyone to take a moment to consider what water means to each of us. The result was revealing – a kaleidoscope of diverse responses reflecting how the value of water manifests differently for different people and different communities from home and family life to cultural practices, businesses, health and well-being. These are incredibly important facets of the value of water. But, it also raises the question about whether all these individual reflections are sufficient to illuminate a broader collective understanding of the centrality of water systems to economies, communities and ecosystems.

Water presents a paradox of the essential. It is a critical resource for societies and economies – even a life sustaining one for people and nature. Nevertheless, it is chronically under-valued. Water usually only garners attention and investment when it is running out or has caused a disaster. Fortunately, we are starting to see a shift in how water is appreciated, with companies starting to move beyond a focus on water efficiency behind their own fence lines to a broader focus on watershed health. Similarly, investors are beginning to channel capital towards water-related investments and understanding how water risks can impact their portfolios. And governments are working to improve water policies, infrastructure and management.

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Climate change mitigation and adaptation: managing two sides of the same coin

By Catherine Gamper and Mikaela Rambali, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Shutterstock / ValentinaKru

Even if global average temperature increases are limited to below 2°C, there will still be serious climate impacts. Since pre-industrial times, we have witnessed a global average temperature increase of 1.1°C, while ocean acidity has increased by 26%. An increasing number of destructive weather-related extreme events are taking place. The intensity and scale of the wildfires that affected Australia and California in 2019-20, for example, were attributed to climate change.

Until now, efforts to mitigate and to adapt to climate change have been led by distinct policy communities, building on specific knowledge and information, and mobilising different stakeholders to address distinct technological and distributional challenges. However, the issues of mitigation and adaptation are linked and when addressed jointly, their impact and effectiveness can be reinforced. The G20 leaders recently acknowledged “the importance of fostering synergies between adaptation and mitigation, including through nature-based solutions and ecosystem based approaches”. National climate policies also reflect this synergy, such as in the UK’s Adaptation Communication issued in December 2020, which highlights the allocation of EUR 700 million from the Nature for Climate Fund to nature-based solutions that promote synergies between mitigation and adaptation.

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Let’s choose to challenge the climate crisis with a gender lens

By Sigita Strumskyte, Dimitra Xynou, Amelia Smith and Shanda Moorghen, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Shutterstock / sdecoret

On 8 March, the world will observe International Women’s Day under the theme #ChooseToChallenge. It is a day to recognise achievements, spread awareness and strengthen commitments to creating more inclusive societies, but also an opportunity to call out gender inequalities and take action. This year, it is being celebrated amidst dual health and environmental crises that have economic ramifications for all, but whose interconnected impacts risk undermining recent progress towards gender equality.

Women represent a vast share of the health care workforce, the sector most exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a group, they have been severely affected by a sharp contraction in the services sector and job losses in the informal sector, while managing increased family and household responsibilities during periods of lock-down and restricted mobility. Studies show that women experience an increased occurrence of violence, exploitation, abuse and harassment during times of crisis and quarantine.

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2021: Adaptation comes to the fore

By Catherine Gamper and Nicolina Lamhauge, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Petrmalinak / Shutterstock

We entered 2021, full of hope that the approval of COVID-19 vaccines would bring some respite from the crisis brought about by the pandemic. With manufacturing delays, unequal access and delays in the roll-out of many vaccination plans it is becoming clear that the virus will continue to claim lives and severely affect livelihoods in the foreseeable future.

As governments continue to respond to the simultaneous health emergency and economic crisis, we must learn from our failure to prepare for what has been a well-known (pandemic) risk for many years.  And there are other looming global challenges, of which climate change is among one of the most serious.

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Harnessing nature to tackle the climate emergency

By Mikaela Rambali and Catherine Gamper, OECD Environment Directorate

Image credit: Ulrike Stein / Shutterstock

While the term “nature-based solutions” may have been coined relatively recently, communities worked with nature’s strengths to enhance societal resilience long before modern civilisation. For example, the Aztecs developed an agro‐hydrological system, known as the Chinampas, to build resilience against drought. They created rectangular areas of fertile arable land by dredging mud and creating canals. Not only did this technique replenish the nutrients in the soil for the crops, it also created a habitat for fish and birds, which in turn helped maintain the health of the ecosystem as well as provided additional sources of food. The drainage systems also mitigated flooding during the rainy season.

Today, over-exploitation of natural resources and intensive land-use is causing environmental degradation and an unprecedented rate of species extinction. Climate change will only accelerate these processes and add new challenges. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are attracting increasing attention as a way to address these inter-related issues.

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