This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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That the post-pandemic world must be different from before seems to be common wisdom nowadays. Witness the views of OECD’s Secretary-General Angel Gurría, or the European Commission’s NextGenEU proposal for a European recovery and resilience plan, with Ursula von der Leyen’s European Green Deal as its backbone. Increasingly too, voices from the social partners – both trade unions and employers – plead for a green and inclusive recovery.
Indeed, it has been more than half a century since scientific evidence started pointing at the risk for humanity of overshooting the biophysical limits of the planet we depend upon for our survival. From that perspective, placing the green transition at the heart of our recovery strategy should be a no-brainer. However, we should not take it for granted that rational arguments will automatically prevail. Indeed, the current economic system, which sees the planet, its resources and its living inhabitants – men and women included – as boundless resources in order to maximise profits has beneficiaries who will not easily surrender their rents. And they have powerful allies in positions of political power.
Environmental Responses to COVID-19 – OECD Policy Response
Efficiency, or more precisely financial efficiency as measured by EBITDA, has been the sole compass of economic policymaking – indeed all policymaking – for the last 30 years. There was simply no alternative, and none was needed, in fact, since for the homo economicus a good life simply flowed from profit maximisation. If anything, the pandemic brutally reminded us that resilience, that is the ability of life to withstand shocks, is at least equally important. But resilience comes at a cost of efficiency: there is a tension between the two and a balance has to be found. Likewise, one thought that bigger and faster was always best, or that global was the right scale for everything. On each of these axes, between local and global, between fast and slow, small and big, a balance must be found and that is precisely the space for democratic choice. In fact, there is an alternative; there are actually several of them.
Instead of financial efficiency, we need to place human dignity – that of all human beings, present and to come – at the heart of policymaking.
Instead of financial efficiency, we need to place human dignity – that of all human beings, present and to come – at the heart of policymaking. Sure, a dignified life requires economic resources, but also many other things: a liveable environment, quality public services, a lively cultural life, decent working conditions, flourishing human relationships…these will not be the product of a system geared towards the sole maximisation and concentration of financial wealth. The pandemic, because it brought the system we live in to a halt, gives us an opportunity to reconsider our compass.
The European Union can be a leader of a socially just, ecological transition that is the result of such a compass change. On the face of it, it seems to be the intent of the Commission in its NextGenEU proposal. But looking under the cover, it seems that the intentions have not been translated into the legislative texts that are supposed to make it concrete: alignment with the Green Deal or with social goals, if at all mentioned, are not made clear and enforceable enough. In order to make it happen, majorities will need to be found both in the European Parliament and the European Council (the EU-27 governments). And it is clear that the forces that de facto want to postpone the green transition until after we have restored our economies to the old status quo are becoming more vocal, both among the member states as within the Parliament. So a struggle it will be, that will require considerable mobilisation both within and outside of our democratic institutions.
I entered the European Parliament in 2009, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. One could then believe that global financial capitalism had been so damaged by the crisis that change would happen almost by itself. Actually, very little changed and if anything, the world’s economy is further driven by shaky debt than before the crisis. We then missed the opportunity to initiate the systemic shift that humanity needs in order to survive on this planet. I believe that the pandemic opens a new space to do so, at a time when the global consciousness of the environmental constraints we need to respect has become more widespread. Let us not miss it.