Putting equity, sustainability and decarbonization at the heart of the economic recovery from COVID-19

Author: Roisín Gorman, The Climate Group
Reading time: 7 minutes
22 May 2020

Around the world, nations are tackling the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the significant socio-economic impacts caused by efforts to contain the virus.

While governments must concentrate current efforts on providing a robust public health response and immediate support to those most socially and economically impacted by the crisis, global attention is also turning to long-term economic recovery once the spread of the virus has been controlled. By addressing the causes of climate change, environmental degradation and inequity in the recovery process, we can reduce the likelihood of facing further global disasters like this in the future. 

The majority of infectious disease outbreaks are caused by transmission between animals and humans and activities such as land use change, habitat fragmentation and the trade of live wildlife all increase the risk of transmission. Additionally, as global temperature increase, so do the risks posed by vector-borne diseases and, as the climate crisis escalates, we are also predicted to face an increasing number of global disasters outside of public health including extreme weather events and food and water shortages.

All of these problems are exacerbated by poverty, lack of education and general socio-economic inequity. In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent report by the United Nations states: “had we been further advanced in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we could better face this challenge”. 

Economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require deliberate and decisive action by governments, businesses and communities to put equity, sustainability and decarbonization at its heart in order to mitigate the risk of future global disasters and to increase preparedness for those that are unavoidable. Focussing economic recovery around these core values will also promote effective economic regrowth following the current downturn.

The International Renewable Energy Agency reports that directing economic stimuli and investment into the transformation of global energy systems to renewable energy could, by 2050, result in a cumulative gain of almost 100 trillion USD, 7 million more jobs economy-wide and better health across the globe associated with cleaner air and a 13.5% higher welfare indicator.

Many governments are already beginning to address the economic impacts of the pandemic through major financial interventions, ranging from 95 billion USD in South Korea to 2.2 trillion USD in the US. By directing emergency investments into green development, not only will we see a strong long-term economic recovery and a host of social co-benefits, but we will also begin to initiate the transformational changes to our global systems that are required to address the ongoing climate crisis.


The Climate Group’s Climate Pathway Project provides a strong model for effective transformational change of an economy towards decarbonization, sustainability and equity.

The project works with seven states and regions in Latin America (Querétaro, Quintana Roo, Madre de Dios, Mato Grosso, Amazonas, São Paulo, and Santa Fe) to optimize their transition to a decarbonized future through a participatory process that aims to maximize socio-economic co-benefits. Central to the project are four key principles that can be applied to post-pandemic economic rebuilding efforts.

1. Long-term target setting

Identifying a shared long-term vision and target for economic and societal transformation of a jurisdiction is essential for successful change as it ensures all future actions, legislation and policies are directed by a common goal.

Ricardo Torres, Undersecretary of Environment at the Secretariat of Sustainable Environment (SEDSU) for Querétaro, highlights that: 

“Generating long-term plans allows us to ensure compliance even when there are changes in administrations.” 

Torres also emphasizes Querétaro’s intention to integrate their 2050 target of a 65% reduction in emissions from 2015 levels into state law.

States and regions participating in the Climate Pathway Project develop a baseline trajectory of projected emissions to 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario, as well as potential decarbonization trajectories.

Long-term targets must be ambitious and align with stakeholder interests and priorities while remaining technically and economically achievable, as is the case with Querétaro’s 2050 emissions reduction target.

In the Climate Pathway Project, the process of target-setting begins with a business-as-usual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions trajectory to 2050 that key stakeholders within a state use to identify priority sectors on which to focus their decarbonization efforts. Sectors that account for the highest emissions and those that are relevant to the jurisdiction’s economic development interests are generally selected. Stakeholders then outline their visions for the transformation of the jurisdiction.

Rafael Robles de Benito, Director of Climate Change at the Secretariat of Ecology and Environment (SEMA) for the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, envisions:

“Strong rural development that has an emphasis on sustainable agriculture and forestry activities with significant support for the quality of life of the Mayan communities and significant participation of vulnerable sectors of the population (women and youth).”

Benito also expresses his hopes for the development of a more sustainable tourism industry that benefits local people by relying more on local products and services.

Based on the long-term visions of stakeholders and the identified priority sectors, a jurisdictional emissions reduction target for 2050 is determined. Project stakeholders in Quintana Roo recently agreed an economy-wide target of 63% CO2 emissions reductions from 2010 levels by 2050, focussing on the agriculture, forestry & other land use, energy (including transport) and waste sectors. The target determines what actions are selected to drive transformational change. 

2. Action planning to create pathways to targets

As Margarette Escobar, International Advisor for the Secretariat of Infrastructure and Environment (SIMA) for São Paulo, says:

“It is not enough to have legislation, [states and regions require] a short, medium and long-term action plan.” 

Once a long-term target has been set, project states and regions determine suitable intermediate targets to help them achieve their decarbonization goal. Using these as a guide, and together with the project and technical teams, stakeholders identify a catalogue of potential climate actions to enact that will help them reach their emissions reduction goals.

Stakeholders then identify actions most suitable for the jurisdiction on the basis of their emissions reduction potential, accompanying socio-economic co-benefits and alignment with other jurisdictional objectives.

3. Empowerment

Empowerment of subnational governments increases the success and effectiveness of large-scale transformative change. National recognition can also lead to replication of effective state and regional action across other jurisdictions while strengthening national cooperation and success.

States and regions of the Climate Pathway Project say that national recognition and support of their climate action has the potential to increase the pace and quality of global decarbonization efforts, and that incorporation of their emissions reduction levels into national figures will significantly contribute to the achievement of their country’s Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. They argue that implementing successful climate action policies requires an understanding of state-level and local needs.

Ricardo Torres states:

“In the medium term, global climate actions will be led by subnational governments… [which have the best] knowledge of local populations and conditions. They understand what strategies can and cannot work in a region”.

Today, national governments are increasingly recognizing the role of states and regions in the low-carbon transition.

Walter Heredia, Director of the International Technical Cooperation Office of project region Madre de Dios, says his region is becoming increasingly recognized by the Peruvian government for its “important leadership role” in Peru’s climate action.

Similarly, of the Mexican Federal Government, Ricardo Torres says “for the first time [they are] turning to the states”, and encourages national governments to further empower and “strengthen the technical capacities” of state and regional governments. Torres highlighted that through receipt of the Climate Pathway Project's technical assistance and capacity-building, Querétaro has been able to strengthen its climate action. 

4. Collaboration

Collaboration is key to the success of the Climate Pathway Project and will be vital to successful, equitable recovery of the global economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. Involving key stakeholders from the public, private, and academic sectors, and from indigenous communities throughout the decision-making process ensures that targets and actions selected to drive societal transformation are feasible, equitable and maximize co-benefits for all.

Torres and Heredia reported strong interest in involvement in the Climate Pathway Project from their local communities in Querétaro and Madre de Dios, respectively, with Heredia stating:

“We have facilitated synergies with different actors across the region…there is a lot of interest from local actors… [and] we have achieved a strong commitment within the regional government”. 

Inclusion of interested and relevant stakeholders such as these creates a collective sense of responsibility to follow through and implement actions, ultimately increasing the success of transformative change.

As Saulo Pereira Vieira, Technical Representative of the State Secretariat of Metropolitan Transport of São Paulo, states:

“Reducing emissions requires joint actions by the government, civil society and the agriculture, industry and energy sectors… all should participate and contribute to the implementation of actions that reduce GHG emissions”.

Transformative recovery

The outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in a multifaceted global crisis of historic proportions. However, the equally unprecedented response that will be required to recover effectively from it presents us with an opportunity to build back better.

Economic recovery from the pandemic will benefit from the application of the four key principles of the Climate Pathway Project’s transformational process. Governments must first identify what successful recovery looks like locally and globally and define a long-term economic vision and target. They can then build pathways of action towards those targets through collaborative processes inclusive of all governance levels as well as social and economic sectors.

By channelling efforts and funding into a recovery process that prioritizes decarbonization, sustainability and equity, we can address global challenges and emerge with a stronger and more resilient global society than before.

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