Buiding Back Better: The Strive for a Sustainable Future

18th March 2021

By now, you should have heard of the Building Back Better concept, if only in President Biden’s inauguration speech. It finds its roots in the improvement of land use, spatial planning and construction standards through the recovery process, and has now expanded to represent a broader opportunity by building greater resilience in recovery by systematically addressing the root causes of vulnerability. But what does this mean for associations? In the first part of Boardroom’s ‘Building Back Better’ series, we’ll explore why associations may be the key to advancing the ambitious goals of a better world, while also making major strides in achieving goals of their own.

Words Lane Nieset, with Remi Deve

For the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis to be durable and resilient, a return to ‘business as usual’ and environmentally destructive investment patterns and activities have to be avoided at all costs. Uncontrolled global environmental emergencies such as climate change and biodiversity loss could cause social and economic damages far larger than those caused by the pandemic. To counter this, economic recovery initiatives should be designed to “build back better”. This actually means going beyond than just getting economies and livelihoods quickly back to normal – if there’s actually such a thing. 

In this context, recovery policies need to trigger investment and behavioral changes that will reduce the likelihood of future shocks and increase society’s resilience to them when they do occur. Central to this approach is a focus on well-being and inclusiveness. In this regard for example, the Madrid Convention Bureau has committed to promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all – in clear alignment with the 8th UN Sustainable Development Goal.

Other key dimensions for assessing whether recovery packages can “build back better” include alignment with long-term emission reduction goals, factoring in resilience to climate impacts, slowing biodiversity loss and increasing circularity of supply chains. In practice, well-designed recovery policies can cover several of these dimensions at once, such as catalyzing the shift towards accessibility-based mobility systems, and investing in low-carbon and decentralized electricity systems.

Global Growth Strategy

As Europe accelerates toward a climate-neutral economy by 2050, climate policy may be the key to the continent’s—and world’s—growth strategy. As European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen explained when outlining the European Green Deal“I am convinced that the old growth model based on fossil fuels and pollution is out of date and out of touch with our planet.” Echoing von der Leyen’s comment,Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Green Deal, put it this way: “In this crucial moment for our health, our economy and for global climate action, it is essential that Europe leads the way to a green recovery. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to take action now. Today, Europe is showing the world how we will enhance the wellbeing and prosperity of our citizens in the next decade as we work towards our goal of climate neutrality by 2050.”

Part of the ambition to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 means replacing the EU’s current climate ambition of a 40% cut for 2030 and raising it to 50-55%. In early 2021, the Commission will adopt a new, more ambitious EU strategy on adaptation to climate change in order to strengthen efforts on climate-proofing, resilience building, prevention and preparedness, ensuring that businesses, cities and citizens are able to integrate climate change into their risk management practices. 

The Commission’s plan for the European Green Deal outlines 10 main goals, which include a new circular economic action plan, which would prepare for “clean steelmaking” using hydrogen by 2030; doubling or tripling the renovation rate of buildings; a pollution-free environment; a healthier agriculture system through the reduction of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics; a transition away from fossil fuels; a R&D and innovation programme revolving around climate-friendly technologies; and transport (we’ll be diving deeper into the sectors in the coming months).

What is a stake

So everything is interconnected, and we can actually argue that a collective strive for a sustainable future is what is a stake for a better and efficient recovery. But what exactly does this mean for associations? What role do they have to play?

“Associations represent their members—organizations, companies, individuals etc.—who serve many purposes and are engaged in a multitude of sectors and interests,” says Silke Schlinnertz, Head of Growth for Euroheat & Power and a member of the Boardroom Advisory Board. “Organizations and people join and are actively involved in their association because they want to work together on a common cause or interest. One could say members of an association represent the ‘activists’ of our society. Those activists shape our society when they join forces, and that collaboration is facilitated by associations. However, it’s just the starting point, and I believe it’s only fair to say that together, we are stronger and can create a bigger impact!

Associations are created to establish strength and unity in working toward common goals in virtually every profession. The overall result of these connections is more informed legislators, a more informed public, and better lawmaking in general. With a ‘building back better’ approach, they can play a part in making energy, transport and buildings greener, improving the quality of air, water and soil, and producing healthier food and sustainable agriculture. “If we don’t act together, the consequences of inaction on our health, our environment and our economy will be just devastating,” says Schlinnertz.

As a group of people getting together to advocate for a cause or advance a particular field of expertise, associations should develop their people and working culture across the industry they represent – and make sure they make tangible, measurable impacts. As they ease out of lockdown and plan for a brand-new chapter of their life, they should especially review and report on their industry’s social contribution (in the broadest possible sense) and their latest conversations with their stakeholders and governments on how their activities and initiatives can be used to drive and accelerate economic and social recovery.

Here’s something to consider in the matter: when was the last time you analysed your ethics codes? Associations have long held corporate responsibility, but there’s a social responsibility to uphold as well. It’s been five years since the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development set the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Have any of these goals been reflected in your code of ethics? 

For example, part of “no one left behind” is reducing social and economic inequalities, but these inequalities start at the base level. It’s important to voice and stress disapproval of discrimination, harassment and hostility against others as individuals or groups. COVID-19 is a great example of how inequalities in economic systems became blatantly apparent. As the world races toward vaccination solutions, it’s clear that there needs to be universal basic services, such as healthcare coverage and free or reduced water, electricity, housing, mobility and education.

Structural change

As Kinga Joó, member of the European Economic and Social Committee and co-chair of the EEA CC, stated: “Structural change, such as the green transition, has to be accompanied by social measures to be successful. For low-income households it is important to consider how to alleviate and compensate for the disproportionate impacts. Supporting social investment can enable efforts towards climate neutrality, generate green jobs and narrow socio-economic disparities.”

Around the globe, governments are starting to open their eyes and be more open to change, introducing principles in line with the universal goals that have an immediate impact on society, but they’re also looking to one another – and associations – for ideas, support, and exchange of knowledge. 

New Zealand, Iceland, Wales, Finland and Scotland, for example, formed the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership (WEGo) to share expertise and policy practices from both national and regional governments and address the current economic, social and environmental challenges. Convention bureaus are also getting on board with action plans that align with the SDGs, focusing on areas like infrastructure and responsible consumption. For example, the Madrid Convention Bureau is educating its team on environmental awareness and the reduction of energy consumption so that even work in the office has minimal environmental impact. In this way, the efforts will extend to events, and, in time, to the city and its residents.

Associations also play a large and significant role in raising awareness and ambition in terms of pinpointing solutions on how to achieve SDGs on the path to the EGD 2050 timeline. “The overriding objective is to become net carbon neutral by second half of the century, and that has to be done in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals,” explains Philip Turner, Head of Sustainable Development Strategy for the International Association of Public Transport (UITP)“I would argue that if you’re not compliant with the Green Deal objective, you’re not really part of the game, so to speak. We know what the final destination is—the question is how to get there.” In that regard, “associations  have a role to build capacity in order to share best practice and knowledge so things can go quicker, faster and be more efficient,” Turner concludes.

Precisely, we believe the Building Back Better strategy provides the ideal framework to “get there” as it aims to reduce the risk to the people of nations and communities in the wake of future disasters and shocks, integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructure, social systems and shelter, and the revitalization of livelihoods, economies and the environment.

In this context, How to Prioritize Social and Ecological Goals in Organizations, How to Ensure Cooperation and Solidarity at all Levels for the Greater Good, The Circular Economy for Dummies, Investing for Ecological and Well-Being Goals are some of the topics we’re going to explore both on #Roadmap2030 and in Boardroom, and we’d love you to be part of the conversation.

This article is graciously sponsored by Madrid Convention Bureau, whose values align with the Building Back Better concept.

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