Multilateral action for a green post-COVID-19 recovery

Inger Andersen
UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action

Statement prepared for delivery at the 2020 Kapuchinski Development Lecture organized by the Earth Institute of Columbia University in cooperation with the Global Masters for Development Practice and the UN Sustainable Development Network.

Prof. Jeffery Sachs, Koen Doens, Director-General, European Commission, distinguished guests, ambassadors, delegates, partners, colleagues and friends. It is a privilege and a pleasure to deliver the 2020 Kapuchinski Development Lecture organized by the Earth Institute of Columbia University in cooperation with the Global Masters for Development Practice and the UN Sustainable Development Network. This year’s theme is aptly titled “Global Cooperation to Build Back Better”. In this context, you should not be surprised that my central message is that multilateral action can unlock the full potential of a green COVID-19 recovery.

Our immediate priority is to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the long-term, important to tackle habitat and biodiversity loss.

The triple planetary crisis

As we look at the impact of our actions on the planet’s ecological and atmospheric stability, we can see there is something seriously wrong with how our economies and societies operate. While COVID-19 is deadly and destructive, we were already deep in the throes of these three planetary crises.

The three crises, --the climate crisis; the nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis --have been underway for decades. Caused by our unsustainable consumption and production. We see these crises in COVID-19. We see it in rising temperatures, wildfires, droughts, floods, hurricanes and more. We see it in debilitating air pollution and in inordinate waste and chemical streams, including the plastic waste choking our oceans. Take each of these individually, and it would be serious. Take these three crises together and it is mind-blowing.

Science warned us. Nature warned us. The climate warned us. The media warned us. Some politicians warned us. Yet, here we are, counting the costs. Millions of lives lost each year. Massive economic losses. Livelihoods in ruins. Threats to peace, security and wellbeing. Fragile species disappearing into memory. Our way of life – based on producing, consuming and polluting – has brought us here. Even in a time of global belt tightening, humanity still needs 1.6 planets to sustain itself.

And nature, which makes human health and prosperity possible, is at breaking point.

Multilateralism is still the answer

Today, I am going to make two main points on how we can re-engineer our societies to pull back from the brink. One, back strong, reinvigorated multilateralism as a vital tool to ensuring that national efforts join up to fix global problems. Two, recover better from the pandemic by investing in actions to mitigate, and eventually halt, the triple crisis. Let me start with multilateralism.

This year, we mark 75 years of the United Nations. The UN’s founding documents laid out a vision that was audacious and ambitious. Rebuilding a broken world. Preventing global conflict. Eradicating poverty. All through collective action that would help nations rise together.

In 1972, at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, we added the environmental dimension and called for the establishment of the UN Environment Programme. Over the years, we developed a growing understanding of environmental threats, to the ozone layer, to the climate, to biodiversity. The true scale of the risk to our health and prosperity became apparent.

International agreements stacked up, from the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, to the three Rio conventions – on climate, biological diversity and desertification. UNEP alone houses over a dozen multilateral environmental agreements. We now have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which lay out our collective blueprint for a sustainable world and underline that a healthy natural world is fundamental to a world free of poverty, hunger, war and inequality.

Look, I get it. It is easy to be down on multilateralism. Because multilateralism has not hit all of its lofty targets. Even before COVID-19, progress across the SDGs was uneven. We have failed to meet the Aichi Targets to halt biodiversity loss. Science reveals that the commitments we made under the Paris Agreement, on which we are falling short, are not strong enough to ensure climate stability.

So yes, we must focus on where we have fallen short. But multilateralism is the only way to make a meaningful global push. And it has made a significant difference, even when we have not reached as far as we hoped.

Let us look at the Aichi Targets as one example. Even though we did not meet these targets, the recent Global Biodiversity Outlook told us that more biodiversity-rich areas are protected than ever. Where fisheries were regulated, stocks grew. Where coordinated action was taken to slow deforestation, habitat loss was controlled. Where ecosystem restoration was implemented, decades of degradation were reversed.

I also earlier mentioned the Vienna Convention to Protect the Ozone Layer. Last week we celebrated its 35th anniversary. The Convention and its Montreal Protocol united the world to protect the ozone layer, which is now healing, saving millions of lives and avoiding damages to agriculture, fisheries and materials.

Where multilateral action was taken, things changed for the better. And so we can ask how the planet’s biodiversity and ozone layer would have fared without multilateralism to drive the world on. So I say to you that multilateralism as a system does work; it is only when we do not commit strongly enough, or where we fail to live up to our commitments, that we falter.

I am not alone in this belief. Yesterday, Member States adopted a declaration committing to stronger multilateralism. Across the 75th anniversary year, a massive UN engagement exercise found that most people want more international cooperation and solidarity, not less, to deliver a greener, more just future. Multilateral cooperation across borders and political differences is the only way we can take global action and meet the demands of the youth.

COVID-19 recovery and the green transition opportunity

Of course, we must now also contend with the brutal impact of COVID-19. The pandemic is rolling back decades of progress on poverty, gender and health, progress that would not have happened without multilateral action. However, the pandemic gives us an opening to recover better. This means placing action on the triple planetary crisis, at the heart of every economic decision. And turning around from our unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

Investing in green pandemic recovery makes economic sense. Spending on renewable energy can generate 2.5 times more jobs than fossil fuels. Cleaner air can reduce the burden of disease from air pollution, which costs some countries 7 per cent of their GDP. As we embark on the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, investing one dollar in restoring ecosystems can generate nine dollars by way of return on ecosystem services and livelihoods.

Use all the tools in the toolbox

Never before has the world seen so much public money injected into the economy. Governments can choose how to spend the money in their stimulus packages. Let us recall that these funds are tax payer-generated and therefore, need to benefit citizens, and the future of our societies. Bail out the old dirty economy or use every tool in the toolbox to forge a new, green and sustainable future. The choice is obvious.

To enable and speed up the green transition, stimulus packages should include bailouts with green strings attached; investments in nature-based solutions, sustainable agriculture, renewables, conservation and green infrastructure; loans and grants for green investment; green R&D subsidies; reinforcement of environmental legislation; ending fossil fuel subsidies and levying carbon taxes.

Some done, more needed

Rightly, the initial wave of stimulus was fiscal in nature and cut checks to protect people, protect jobs and protect companies. And as the second wave came, we saw some encouraging signs of green measures. The European Union’s EUR 750 billion stimulus plan includes many green measures in agriculture, in energy and beyond. South Korea’s USD 94.5 billion Green New Deal aims to create 1.9 million new jobs by 2025, through a green transition in energy, housing, mobility and industry. Pakistan hired unemployed workers to plant saplings under the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme. Colombia has announced huge investments in renewable energy, tree planting and agroforestry. Barbados’ stimulus package looks to build a sustainable tourism sector. Senegal has exempted 22 different products used in renewable energy from Value Added Tax (VAT) to boost green energy. Now, I am not naïve. Many countries are bailing out the old, the dirty and the unsustainable. But others are leading the way. These countries will be the market leaders in the decades to come.

Stronger, more inclusive multilateralism

While grounded in national realities, stimulus investments need to be anchored in the collective agreements that provide a common roadmap for a more sustainable future. This means the 2030 Agenda; the Paris Agreement; the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework; and the Beyond-2020 Chemicals Framework. For multilateralism to work, however, it needs everyone pulling together. It needs trust and transparency, ownership and optimism. It needs goals that can be broken down and implemented at the national level, and national action that backs international goals. And it needs an informed public, holding governments to account.

These are important lessons. We at UNEP are taking them to heart. Our new Medium-Term Strategy, which is laser focused on dealing with the triple crisis, is built on inclusive multilateralism that reaches beyond governments and supports systemic shifts with the collaboration of the private sector, youth, civil society and faith-based organizations.

The actions to take now

In conclusion, let me say that failure is not an option. Stimulus funds need to invest in the green transition. They need to be inclusive, pro-poor and gender responsive. Unless these funds also tackle the triple planetary crisis, we will be sawing off the branch on which we sit. In a post-pandemic world, only a reinvigorated multilateralism can deliver the best return for these investments and deliver a  world that lives in harmony with nature, with a stable climate and on a pollution-free planet.

In the words of the late Wangari Maathai, who knew better than most how much we depend on each other, “We all share one planet and are one humanity; there is no escaping this reality.”

Thank you.

Inger Andersen

Executive Director


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