In the last few months, with significantly less travel and commuting, we have received a glimpse of what a more sustainable and climate-friendly future may look like.

Following the widespread adoption of stringent lockdown measures requiring the majority of the population to remain at home, we have all seen the viral social media posts of clear waters in the canals of Venice, and amusing videos of goats reclaiming the streets of Llandudno.

Considering the vast majority of the workforce is now working from home, and with nearly 8 in 10 flights cancelled, it surely comes as no surprise that the widespread lockdown measures have resulted in a record 5% annual drop in carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels across Europe, China & the US. Whilst many have hailed this as a break in the clouds from consistent negative reporting around the pandemic, how can the global economy ensure a sustainable return to normality following Covid-19?

COP26 Universities Network: sustainable economic recovery

More than 30 UK universities are collaborating in order to aid the UK in meeting its 2050 climate goals at the UN climate summit in Glasgow (COP26), and have subsequently produced a collaborative publication detailing key policies for a net-zero recovery from Covid-19. Some thought leaders are urging the Government to ‘build back better’ so as not to wipe out the environmental benefits induced by the lockdown, and to reap the benefits of implementing more sustainable policies.

Economic recovery post Covid-19 will be of high importance, and the afore-mentioned report details how the transition to net-zero emissions could aid this recovery and future prosperity for the UK. The report details how there are several benefits to sustainable economic recovery policies, including the creation of more jobs, delivery of higher short-run fiscal multipliers, and higher long-run cost savings. ‘Green’ projects performed particularly well during the Global Financial Crisis, and US modelling showed that for every US$1bn invested in ‘green’ policies, 30,100 jobs could be created, which is a 20% greater return than traditional fiscal policies, and could simultaneously bring a reduction in yearly energy costs.

The policies this report calls for vary from investing in a renewable energy infrastructure, incentivising the uptake of electric vehicles, higher carbon standards for new build homes, and implementing bailouts conditional on climate-friendly criteria, particularly for big polluters. These measures present a real opportunity for governments to utilise the phase of economic recovery to adopt sustainable measures which will provide long lasting benefits.

University collaboration

During past crises, universities have been instrumental in rebuilding the economy through the development of innovative solutions. Innovation, and most importantly, collaboration are key for social and economic recovery, particularly considering the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Oxford University researchers are currently collaborating with AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. This partnership has been formed to develop and manufacture the vaccine, with the goal to mass-produce up to 100million doses by the end of 2020. These forms of collaborations are key as they partner technical immunology knowledge and research with the global manufacturing and distribution capabilities of a transnational corporation, and help to prevent potential supply bottlenecks previously seen for equipment such as ventilators and PPE.

However, whilst the race to develop a vaccine continues, governments are looking towards economic and social recovery from this pandemic, and university collaborations remain essential in future phases of recovery. The economic measures mentioned in the report focus on transforming a lot of industries to become environmentally sustainable, which will not be possible without utilising the innovative research and technologies being developed at universities and academic spin-outs.

As is often the case, the answers to such complex issues rarely come from a single individual or organisation, therefore when looking forward to building back, the importance of collaboration cannot be emphasised enough. Economic development and environmental protection are often seen as a dichotomy but this need not be the case, and it is for this reason that a solution be found that combines a myriad of expertise and disciplines, from economics, to energy, to transport.

Responding to such a complex challenge requires academics, large corporates, SMEs and NGOs to not only share their wealth of knowledge, but to form multidimensional, long lasting partnerships which will enable them to focus on the prominent issues of our time. If we are to look beyond the pandemic to long term social and economic recovery, we need the combined expertise of individuals across sectors and institutions to deliver a brighter future for all.

Opportunity to ‘build back better’

The Covid-19 pandemic has been hailed as a potential ‘clean slate’ for climate change, as global greenhouse gas emissions will fall by more than in any other year on record. The flipside of this is of course that these declines would need to be replicated year on year to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. It is currently expected that emissions will continue to rise once ‘normal life’ ensues, unless governments take this opportunity to intervene.

This global pandemic has demonstrated the capability of both governments and businesses to intervene swiftly and transition to what we now refer to as the ‘new normal’, and whilst climate change conversations have understandably taken a backseat due to the immediacy of Covid-19, the climate emergency continues to pose a real threat should significant changes not be made. It is therefore necessary for governments to collaborate with researchers to adopt measures that will allow for a ‘green’ economic recovery and deliver significant long term benefits which will enable us to build back better.