Building Back Better: A Nature-Led Green Recovery


We’ve heard a lot about “build back better” and a “green recovery” as we start to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen NGOs, charities, businesses, politicians (including UK Cabinet Ministers Dominic Raab and Alok Sharma [1]), the European Union and others, all come out in support of a green recovery. We’ve also seen public opinion polls saying that the public supports a green recovery [2,3].

A green recovery is an opportunity for us to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that builds back the economy and supports jobs and communities – but in a way that addresses the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. We have an opportunity to make a step change in the way that the economy works, for the benefit of people and the planet.

What Does a Green Recovery Look Like?

The Committee on Climate Change has said that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change should be integral to any recovery package” and suggested that low oil prices should be used to raise carbon taxes [4].

The chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, wants net zero to be built into the recovery process for infrastructure, specifically to help achieve net zero and to address regional inequalities, such as bringing forward energy efficiency retrofitting, expanding contracts to grow renewables faster, and the creation of a UK national infrastructure bank [5].

Most will see climate action and economic recovery as paramount and think that probably means an emphasis on infrastructure and technology. This is understandable, and there is much that can be done to support: renewable energy generation, storage, and grid modernization; energy and heating efficiency and retrofitting; investing in training and reskilling to help people move to green jobs; supporting active transport (walking and cycling); improving public transport; rethinking agriculture and food production; implementing a circular economy; green infrastructure and green technologies; and social equality. All of this needs substantial investment.

On the flipside, we need to support polluting and high-energy industries to improve their own performance and not just return to business-as-usual. This means not giving bailouts without conditions to, for example, aviation, car makers and fossil fuels companies. Governments need to remove counter-productive incentives and subsidies.

So it is obvious that we need to link recovery to climate action, and more widely also the Sustainable Development Goals [6]. But we must ensure that the main focus for recovery is not just on carbon. We must recognise the importance and value of biodiversity – and its complexities – and use the economic recovery to help restore nature as well.

Biodiversity in a Green Recovery

We all know about the many, many benefits of healthy, functioning ecosystems and the urgent need for action [7,8] – in both the rural and urban [9] environments. And as we’ve noted before – through the work of the Action 2030 working group [10] – the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis are inextricably linked. We cannot address one without addressing the other as well.

There needs to be investment in nature-based solutions [11] and natural capital, including supporting climate- and wildlife-friendly agriculture and restoring carbon-rich habitats such as peatlands and native mixed woodlands. One way to do this would be to directly invest in jobs that advise farmers and land managers and in jobs that directly work on habitat restoration and creation. In particular, we call for investment in local authority ecologists. Investing in jobs gets people back to work and stimulates the economy directly. We are supportive of the call for a National Nature Service [12].

There needs to be an emphasis on natural capital accounting, and ensuring that nature’s value is included in recovery packages. In providing financial support to businesses, there should be a mandatory requirement to report on their natural capital impacts. CIEEM can help governments to develop these reporting mechanisms.

We need governments to be aware of unintended consequences on the natural environmental if there is a rush to get the economy moving again without full considerations. Governments need to undertake impact assessments on all of their COVID-19 recovery investments. This would ensure that we are not taken off course and governments can deliver on their ambitions to enhance and restore the natural environment, now and for future generations. We need clear and transparent strategies to get to these ambitions.

Regarding infrastructure stimulus, governments also need to take into account the proposals of the forthcoming post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 meeting has been postponed until May 2021 but is still coming. The zero draft proposal [13] currently includes ambitions for increased percentages of land and sea to be set aside for nature. This needs to be considered in conjunction with national infrastructure plans – and we advocate that governments develop ‘natural’ infrastructure plans as well.

CIEEM’s Contribution

We are of course involved in the ongoing development of Biodiversity Net Gain [14], which links directly to getting development moving and at the same time increasing biodiversity. Linked to this, we have also started a new task group on Environmental Net Gain [15]. The fifth episode of our new Sector Streams webinar series [16] was on the topic of recovery from the pandemic. We have published new briefings on nature-based solutions [11] and rewilding [17], both of which are useful in the context of delivering a green recovery. We have also responded to consultations and inquiries on a green recovery [18], and continue to engage with governments and their agencies.

At the time of writing we are conducting a second COVID-19 membership survey, partly to understand what our members want from a green recovery.

And our Autumn Conference this year, currently planned as a physical event for December 2020 in Bristol, will be on the theme of ‘Time to Change: Putting the Environment at the Heart of Social and Economic Well-Being’ [19] and will cover a green recovery.

Next Steps

Government promises of investment in nature [20,21,22] are welcome, but are nowhere near what is needed to truly restore nature and address climate change.

In England, the Government has the opportunity at the Autumn Budget, the interim report of the Net Zero Review and at the Comprehensive Spending Review to show its true intentions for recovery. Governments across the UK and Ireland must step up. Going back to business-as-usual will only see the continued decline of biodiversity and the climate continue to change.

We have an opportunity now to do things so much better [23]. Governments must be brave and bold. And the ecology and environment sector must play its part too. We, collectively, have the expertise and experience to help deliver a green recovery and move to a green economy.


Jason Reeves CEnv MCIEEM is CIEEM’s Head of Policy and Communications.
Contact Jason at:

A shorter version of this article is published in the September 2020 edition of In Practice magazine.