The global call to turn the tragedy of the pandemic into an opportunity for a better world is growing. But what does it mean?

Last week, British Green MP Caroline Lucas said we need to “dream big and bold”. She summed up polls of public opinion which have found that most people want a new economy that is around wellbeing.

“Recent pandemics are a direct consequence of the economic goal of growth at any cost,” she said, referring to the IPBES (the UN’s equivalent of the IPCC for biodiversity).

Repair nature

The IPBES’ recent statement, “COVID-19 stimulus measures must save lives, protect livelihoods, and safeguard nature to reduce the risk of future pandemics”, highlights that pandemics are caused by activities that bring increasing numbers of people into direct contact and often conflict with the animals that carry these pathogens, which then jump species into humans.

It blames “rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species,” which “often occurs in areas where communities live that are most vulnerable to infectious diseases”.

Over three quarters of the Earth’s land surface have been affected, over 85 per cent of wetlands lost, over a third of all land, and almost 75 per cent of available freshwater converted to crops and livestock production, leaving little space for the wild.

For the IPBES, repairing nature is crucial for the post-covid world.

Speaking on a webinar for British MPs at the end of last week, former government chief scientist Sir David King said the way to repair nature is to “put a value on our ecosystems. We need to set human well-being alongside eco-system well-being and then move forward. The world’s consumerist population is rising, which is big driver for change.”

He said the challenge is to find a way of accommodating rising consumerism which is not at the expense of ecosystems.

Create an eco-civilisation

King also said that he doesn’t see anywhere else in the world apart from China the kind of deep thinking that is going on there, where the concept is called eco-civilisation. “This gives a way of seeing how we can move on and, as we emerge, refund only the parts of the economy that are fit for the safer future,” he said.

He recalled his own study made in 2016 into the risk of future pandemics which concluded that a pandemic would certainly happen before 2030, “and our recommendations were not acted upon”.

He drew a parallel with governments’ responses to scientific advice on climate change. “In both cases they don’t follow scientist’s advice in thinking and preparing long term. For a start, the Environment Agency needs more funding in a post covid-19 world. A better paradigm is needed.”

Value the low paid frontline workers more

For Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology at University College London, covid-19 has exaggerated everything about existing inequalities that had been made worse by a decade of austerity. “Frontline workers were the most neglected and need to be valued.”

That we must value frontline workers more was also the key advice from Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and Tim Jackson, Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.

All of them were speaking on the webinar for MPs.

“Normality was part of the problem,” Mazzucato said, “in the sense the financial sector was only financing itself – 80 per cent of the bailout money after the last financial crisis was kept in the banking sector and not given to the rest of the economy.”

“We now recognise that care workers, health workers, cleaners, caterers, workers in the waste and recycling sector are all essential and have been undervalued”, said Jackson. They should be paid more, both agreed, not bankers and the airlines.

“Health and wellbeing are more important than growth in GDP,” said Mazzucato.

“We must bring airlines in to be responsible,” she added. “Governments need to add strings to bailouts, and tackle the gig economy, tackle the employers – Denmark isn’t bailing out companies in tax havens. The crisis has worsened existing inequalities. The digital divide is stronger, with poor kids not getting education. Government must now be proactive not reactive in building a better world.”

“We must remember that government money is not household (taxpayers’) money but is the ability to spend. Because of the current lack of consumerism during the pandemic, the government can spend without risking inflation.”

There’s no problem with the magic money tree

How to pay for it? “There’s no problem with the magic money tree,” said Jackson. He said it was good news that the Treasury and the Bank of England have agreed that the government can borrow on the private bond market, that is, fund public things directly.

“We must remember that government money is not household (taxpayers’) money but is the ability to spend. Because of the current lack of consumerism during the pandemic, the government can spend without risking inflation. We must retrain people into the sectors we want, even pay directly in the salaries of green workers.

“We need a job-rich recovery, the opposite to last time.”

What are these green jobs?

Jackson said jobs are in energy efficiency – a “refurbishment army”– because these sectors are more labour intensive. “Frontline workers are green jobs especially since these low-paid workers are not big consumers, in the care, craft, and low impact practical jobs.”

But what would this green economy be like?

Yes, it will be labour intensive.

According to new calculations by Professor Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute, the effort required to decarbonise heat alone will be “monumental”, with 26 million homes in the UK and the vast majority needing new heating appliances.

Moreover, the building stock typically has very poor insulation, and will need upgrading. New types of heating systems such as heat pumps will need installing.

There will also be the opportunity for district heating schemes, which capture waste heat from industry, for example, and distribute it to homes and larger buildings.

More hydrogen gas and bio methane in the gas grid means the gas grid itself will need upgrading. So will the electrical grid to cater for the increased electrical demand of heat pumps and electric vehicles, which in many places not only exceed what the national electricity grid can presently supply, but the local grid as well.

Freer puts the cost at £500 billion (A$931 billion), and says that “the economic and infrastructure benefits will not be localised to certain regions in the UK, but everywhere. Everywhere will feel the economic uplift.

“There is a strong need to light a fire under the economy and decarbonisation and sustainable heat may be the best way of achieving this.”

In the light of recent government spending on the pandemic, £500 billion no longer seems too big a price tag for decarbonising the economy.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference, and ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits. He also runs the online course, a Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.