Adriana Lobo
Executive Director
WRI México
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Sustainability: One of the Great Lessons COVID-19 Has Left Us

By Alessa Flores | Tue, 11/24/2020 - 13:40

Q: What does the Sustainable Revolution plan of action mean for decision-makers and society? 

A: The Sustainable Revolution document, which captures the diversity of voices that have joined in this first attempt at dialogue on how to restore our societies from the terrible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, is anything but an end. This report is a call for action to open new doors for cooperation between governments, private initiatives, the financial sector, the academy, and civil society organizations.

We hope that this document will open up new conversations, action plans, coalitions, public policies and financial instruments but above all, a new social pact based on justice, solidarity, humility and resilience. With this document, we seek to encourage reflection on a sustainable revolution and to encourage a union of efforts starting with dialogue. We need more than words to insert ourselves into the climate moment of our era, as relevant agents of change, rather than as passive actors contemplating disaster. We live in urgent times yes, but also, in moments of hope based on science and data, rather than rhetoric and false promises.

It is up to us to create a strong link between social justice and global finance, young people and transparent and true politics, the economy and sustainability. It is up to us to see the world as a unique and wonderful container of interdependent systems for the development and enjoyment of present and future generations. 

Q: What should decision-makers prioritize when looking to build a more prosperous, equitable and resilient future?

A: We need to build a prosperous and equitable future that is environmentally friendly and resilient, ensuring the well-being of both urban and rural populations. In that sense, the immediate priority of this response should be to protect the most vulnerable and to cushion the impact of this crisis on the rest of the population. To this end, it is essential to strengthen social safety nets. There is evidence that such a future can be built.

For example, as various analyses have shown, it makes social, economic and environmental sense to promote the development of renewable energy, energy efficiency and the transition to a green economy, which is also compatible with the national objective of combating poverty and ensuring energy self-sufficiency.

Q: Under the #BuildBackBetter motto, what should decision-makers bear in mind to re-evaluate themselves and what should their future steps be to ensure a Sustainable Revolution?

A: There is overwhelming evidence today that if we are to recover quickly, the best way to do so is with the economy of tomorrow and the adoption of the New Green Deal. What this means is that in order to deal with the various crises that we are experiencing, it is not enough simply to create any stimulus program and jobs of any kind. Quality programs and jobs must be created in the right sectors and in the right places. Investing in energy efficiency creates twice as many jobs as investing in oil and gas, and investing in public transport creates three times as many jobs as investing in street construction.

This evolution toward low-carbon economies and societies must be accompanied by a new social pact. We cannot ignore the fact that the current crisis disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations, such as the poor, women, the elderly, children, migrants, peripheral and indigenous communities and other disadvantaged groups, even though they were not responsible for generating it. Without a doubt, the pending task that the pandemic exposed most forcefully was the enormous regional inequity that exists in economic terms, in access to services and opportunities, and in social terms.

This crisis forces citizens, politicians, academics, financiers, NGOs and business leaders to collectively embark on a journey of transformation that will lead us to a new social contract based on a commitment to increased support for the most vulnerable, protection of the natural systems on which we all depend, and more effective collective action to address common threats. It is imperative and urgent to understand that measures to address the coronavirus pandemic, environmental degradation and climate change are linked, and that one cannot be neglected without impacting the response to the others.

Q: What do you consider should be the new social pact and development model that decision-makers encourage to transform cities into better societies?

A: Cities are at the center of the crisis caused by COVID-19 and, therefore, of discussions on post-pandemic recovery. In Latin America, this health and economic crisis disproportionately affects populations in situations of poverty, socio-spatially segregated and without access to urban services. These vulnerabilities highlight the territorial inequities that have already existed in cities in the past, as well as the need to urgently address the structural problems of inequality, governance, and urban resilience. The challenges faced by Latin American cities are multidimensional and multisectoral, so their response plans must be collective, collaborative and built on evidence-based decisions. The solution lines presented below are the product of intersectoral dialogues between specialists, public officials, and the public interested in building resilient, equitable and sustainable cities.

The Sustainable Revolution will not be possible if urban inequality is not addressed first. How well-prepared cities are to meet the social, economic and environmental challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change must be examined through a lens of "holistic resilience," which takes into account the connection between the environment and equity, from the local to the national level. We need a social contract built around the concept of sustainability and the notion of territory. This requires good governance that not only coordinates actions with different levels of urgency, at various scales and at different times, but also includes citizen participation in its management; that is, that allows citizens to exercise their right to influence the destiny of the city they inhabit and to demand that all infrastructure projects, equipment, housing, public space and urban services be resilient and aimed at a low-carbon economy. Finally, the processes of urban recovery and adaptation must be socialized through a collective construction of information that takes into account the particular dynamics of each city and that recognizes the conditions of informality and precariousness in which a large part of the Latin American population lives.

Q: What role should the business sector play in the sustainable recovery? What areas should they promote and what actions could they take?

A: In order to identify incentives and barriers for the private sector to scale up the adoption of emission reduction targets aligned with climate goals and the socio-economic crisis, the World Resources Institute Mexico (WRI Mexico), in conjunction with the Global Compact Mexico, WWF Mexico and CDP LATAM, held on July 6th the first session of the Science Based Targets (SBT) initiative dialogues in Mexico, in the framework of the Sustainable Revolution initiative.

The session "Challenges to increase climate ambition in Mexico through the contribution of the private sector" sought to strengthen the bridges between the public and private sectors and encourage discussion to increase the climate ambition of companies and the country. This was done by establishing goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in companies' corporate activities and processes.

In Mexico, the private sector has a direct link to about 42% of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the fact that globally more than 900 companies are committed to reducing their emissions with solutions aligned to science through the Science-Based Objectives initiative, only six of these are Mexican companies, and only two have goals validated by the SBT methodology.

Q: What are the great lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Today's health challenge forces us to reflect deeply on how we operate as a society. Historically, the most severe crises have been the scenario in which the great technological, economic and social revolutions have been generated. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, described the current pandemic as "the most challenging crisis that humanity has faced since World War II," since it will trigger a recession "without a point of comparison in the recent past" and a health crisis "never before seen in the 75 years of existence" of the organization he presides.

In the face of this critical scenario, potentialized by the pandemic, world leaders, large financial institutions and businesses have turned on the machinery to create stimulus packages to help shore up the economy. From past experience, we know that the urgency to address this inescapable need could lead major global decision-makers to try to solve the health crisis regardless of whether it could exacerbate environmental degradation and the global climate emergency.

The risk of dying from COVID-19 is much higher for people living in areas with high levels of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, according to a Harvard University study, and changes in temperature and precipitation could extend the geographical range of malaria in some regions, according to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate change is also projected to alter the range and distribution of diseases such as Zika, Lyme, dengue and West Nile virus.

Furthermore, addressing one public health crisis but fertilizing another (such as air pollution) would be totally counterproductive: Nearly 8.8 million people die prematurely each year due to air pollution, according to data from the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In Mexico, if the country complies with its goal of reducing polluting emissions inscribed in the Paris Agreement, nearly 26,000 deaths would be avoided between now and 2030, and more than 38,000 by 2050, and this number could be even higher if more ambitious goals are set.

In the case of the organizations that have signed this document – the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Latin American Development Bank (CAF), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the British Embassy in Mexico, the German Cooperation for Sustainable Development in Mexico (GIZ), the Mexican Climate Initiative (MCI), The Climate Reality Project Latin America, the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM), the World Resources Institute Mexico (WRI Mexico) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – we have captured our efforts in our "Sustainable Revolution: Dialogues for Recovery, Resilience and Equity." For seven weeks, we activated a multisector dialogue to identify priority issues and possible lines of consensual solutions, through a digital offering of high-level panels and discussions. The final result of that exercise is the present roadmap, in which we compile those possible solutions.

Photo by:   Adriana Lobo
Alessa Flores Alessa Flores Senior Journalist and Industry Analyst