‘Bouncing back better’ from COVID-19 requires overcoming systemic lock-ins

By Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading and Senior Fellow on the DEFRA Systems Research Programme

What will the impacts of COVID-19 be on the environment? As I write this blog, analyses of UK datasets since lockdown from March 2020 to the current day have shown major reductions in greenhouses gases and significant improvements in air quality in terms of nitrous oxides. (However, levels of fine particulate matter showed less change.)

There have also been many reports in popular media of wildlife benefitting from the lower human activity levels.

These benefits were always going to be short-lived during the lockdown. They demonstrate what is possible, but unfortunately they are not worth celebrating as a sustainable achievement for environmental protection.

To do so, would be a bit like holding your breath and suggesting it proves you don’t need oxygen. As governments struggle to get national economic sustainability back on track, these environmental sustainability gains are quickly lost. We have seen this with the gradual creeping up of air pollution levels since lockdown has lifted.

What about in the longer term? What might happen to environmental quality as we recover from the pandemic? There is lots of talk about transformative responses to the coronavirus crisis, as this European Joint Research Centre report discusses.

Beyond optimistic rhetoric though, it is quite possible that our socioeconomic system could return to a broadly similar configuration. The graph shows what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash.

Even though the system was perturbed and CO2 emissions temporarily reduced, certain factors ensured the return of the globalised socioeconomic system to its previous structural configuration.

Of course, let’s not be all doom and gloom; some aspects of our socioeconomic systems may well get better after COVID-19. The lockdown seems to have seen increased public engagement with nature.

Analysis shows strong links between access to greenspace and both physical and mental health during lockdown, further reinforcing our previous understanding of the important relationship between greenspace and well-being. And, if these higher levels of nature engagement stick that will be a great thing.

Equally, however, some things could get worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic. One worrying issue for the environment sector is the economy. The environment can end up near the bottom of the priority list during economic recession when it gets seen as a ‘luxury’.

That seems to be happening again, at least in some countries where economic stimulus packages have not been very ‘green’ and have instead propped up environmentally harmful industries. For example, China has relaxed environmental rules and the USA has allowed companies to break pollution laws.

Therefore, it’s crucial to articulate the importance of a healthy environment. This is especially pertinent in the UK because the compounding urgency to strike trade deals after Brexit could mean food sustainability standards are lowered. Hence, the UK environmental footprint risks getting even bigger.

How can this be tackled? One important aspect is to better understand the factors that keep socioeconomic systems locked into unsustainable trajectories. A first step is developing common language to allow the essential crosstalk between different academic disciplines around system transformations.

A recent study from an international workshop I was involved in found that many different terms are used to describe when a system is stuck in a ‘bad’ trajectory with these including ‘inertia’, ‘socioecological trap’ and ‘perverse resilience’. The term ‘lock-in’ was most broadly understood across disciplines.

‘Lock in’ mechanisms, often comprising negative feedback loops, ensure the return of the socioeconomic system to its previous configuration even in the face of perturbations. They can be structural, regulatory or legislative factors, knowledge constraints, vested interests influencing power dynamics, sociocultural factors, or all the above and more. Understanding these diverse lock-in mechanisms is key to being able to transform systems, as we have found for overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system.

To enable a genuine green recovery from COVID-19, lock-ins that need to be overcome include structural factors, such as the perverse subsidies we pay for farming. In addition to this, significant lock-ins also occur at the level of individual mindsets and attitudes. These are fundamentally important, as ultimately it is people’s mindsets that support or disrupt the prevailing socioeconomic structure and set the ‘rules of the game’, as systems thinker Donella Meadows puts it.

In a global recession, the dominant policy and media discourse is often about economic growth, yet we need to convey how environmental sustainability is essential to underpin economic stability, as well as human health.

Such arguments lend weight to the narrative of why we need transformation to a new post-COVID-19 food system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable whilst at the same time provides nutritious and affordable food. Focussing on mindsets and attitudes also allows us to understand and influence how dietary choice and consumption patterns are key factors that must change to enable positive system transformation.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 presents a window of opportunity for a more sustainable future. Reconfiguring our socioeconomic systems for lasting positive change, however, needs more than pretty words. It needs to be a substantial coordinated effort on lock-in mechanisms at both structural and deeper psychological levels.