The world has yet to overcome Covid-19 but the next challenge for all countries is to kick-start their economies. With further uncertainty ahead, we ask Yann Arthus-Bertrand, photographer, reporter, director and CEO of GoodPlanet, and Élisabeth Laville, who set up sustainable development consultancy Utopies 27 years ago, whether they believe an inclusive and sustainable recovery is possible.
What does the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis reveal about our society and relationship with the environment here in France?
Élisabeth Laville – The crisis has been a revelation. Firstly, because when the economy is at a standstill, nature fares better; however, the goal now is to continue to protect the environment while reviving the economy! Secondly, the fact that companies can play an essential social role and contribute to the common good – for example manufacturing masks or respirators. Faced with an emergency, you have to act on your purpose. I’m thinking of MAIF, which gave the savings made through reduced car insurance claims during the lockdown back to its customers. We must use this period to build a more inclusive and resilient society and economy so that we’re able to cope with other crises, in particular the climate crisis.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand – What happened was unimaginable. We discovered you can stop the world overnight and live with just the essentials. Now life is getting back on track, we are facing a deeper economic crisis than we ever imagined. Faced with this immediate emergency, I’m afraid the environment will take a back seat. However the news about global warming is increasingly alarming. Permafrost is melting at rates that exceed even the worst fears in Canada or Siberia yet we continue to do nothing.
What happened was unimaginable. We discovered you can stop the world overnight and live with just the essentials.
Our lifestyles changed a lot during the lockdown. Will our new, more virtuous habits continue?
Y. A-B. – Do you really think so? We consume 100 million barrels of oil a year and still use coal-fired power stations sevenfold over renewable equivalents. We’re prisoners to our own growth, and have a permanent open bar on fossil fuels. We’ve been talking about eating organic food and cycling to work for 20 years but we never seem to put it into practice. We need to change our lifestyles immediately – it’s too late to be pessimistic.
E. L. – I’m still optimistic. The crisis will have accelerated some changes: working from home, greener transport methods in cities, staycations, support for local businesses, a slower way of life… but of course we can’t be naïve and we have to keep going. For everyone dreaming of a new world there is someone who can’t wait to return to the world before!
The challenge is to selectively reduce pollution, waste and CO2 emissions while continuing to increase well-being, health, biodiversity and jobs.
Is “degrowth” a solution to exit the crisis?
Y. A-B. – We’re prisoners to our own system based on growth, which promotes totally unsustainable behaviour. We import meat from Argentina, flowers from Kenya and jump on a plane at the drop of a hat. The temperature could rise by as much as five degrees this century. At this rate, forests will dry up in 10 to 15 years but we remain in collective denial. According to some scientists, we’re making giant leaps towards the sixth mass extinction of life on this planet. Before talking about radical degrowth, it’s imperative we consume less and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
E. L. – Our current models no longer work. We know that infinite growth is impossible in a world of finite resources. The challenge is to selectively reduce pollution, waste and CO2 emissions while continuing to increase well-being, health, biodiversity and jobs. Above all, sustainable development is a cultural change that takes time. When it comes to reducing air travel, buying new clothes or eating meat, I believe we are approaching a tipping point, the moment when the active minority leads the silent majority. Moreover, it’s often after a crisis that new behaviours can take over.
Y. A-B. – We produced a film for the citizens’ climate convention where people “comme les autres” (like the others) re-appropriated current problems. The great thing was that people didn’t need to know anything about ecology to become very engaged and they’re now convincing their families and colleagues having become aware of our collective responsibilities.
The crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of businesses to a standstill. What are the priorities for a greener and more inclusive recovery, particularly in terms of employment?
E. L. – I think locally-based recovery seems the most likely to meet challenges such as employment, inclusiveness, ecology and resilience. Our studies show that a dynamic local economy, or the ability to respond locally to local demand, determines a third of the prosperity gap between regions around the world. However, we still tend to import consumer goods. Our city centres have become logistics platforms where import and export trucks cross each other constantly and without any actual logic! This absurd economy, which has a huge environmental impact, is also responsible for unemployment and social isolation. We urgently need to relocate some of our agricultural or industrial production. In Hauts-de-France for example, if we relocated just 10% of our economic leakage (where we import goods to meet local demand), we could create 45,000 new jobs and reduce our unemployment rate to less than 10%.
Are companies with a strong CSR strategy more resilient and, if so, how can they help drive recovery?
E. L. – These companies have built up a great network of relationships and trust with their stakeholders so they can absorb a few shocks, a bit like a spider’s web that still holds even when certain threads break. They have held up better over the past few months, and are recovering faster. Sustainable investment funds continued to gain investors at the height of the crisis: in the first quarter of 2020, they grew by €30 billion in Europe while the rest fell by €148 billion. Responsible investment funds in the United States have grown five times greater than the rest.
What role can digital play in economic recovery?
Y. A-B. – I say this reluctantly, because technology was a vital tool during the lockdown and I spent my days on the phone – I’m like everyone else – but I do think digital development will increase our environmental impact.
E. L. – Massively used during the lockdown for working remotely or home schooling, digital technology has shown up or even worsened certain inequalities in terms of access and adoption, and even led to deeper isolation for people who now don’t even leave their homes to go to work. But it has also proved essential as it enabled short-term solutions such as direct sales platforms linking producers to consumers. FabLabs also gained credibility by using 3D printers to manufacture essential visors and PPE for healthcare workers. It’s clear digital has a major role to play. The Agenda for a digital and ecological future published in March 2019 by the Next Internet Generation Foundation (FING) explains that to make a transition you need a destination and a path: the ecological transition has the destination but not the path and the digital transition has the path but not the destination. We therefore have every interest in reconciling the two by controlling the impact of digital technology on the planet and ensuring it helps us reduce our energy consumption!