Understanding systemic environmental risk both as a general concept and in terms of knowledge of specific risks is often poor, in both academia and government. The emergence and uncontrolled spread of a zoonotic pandemic illustrates this starkly. Our project pilots a process to identify, mitigate and/or adapt to these kinds of systemic risk that involve the environment. It is especially timely in terms of the window of opportunity during COVID-19 recovery.
We will directly address environmental risks that exacerbate the (often unequally distributed) effects of COVID-19, such as exposure to air pollution affecting respiratory health and disease morbidity.
Our outputs will assist policy teams so that sufficient measures to reduce the risks of further zoonotic disease emergence and spread are fully considered, and ensure that food supply remains resilient during the continued perturbation of global supply chains (including exacerbating threat multipliers such as extreme weather events and geopolitical shocks). More broadly, during socioeconomic recovery from COVID-19 there is a window of opportunity, both in terms of the salience of systemic risk and the possibility of steering economic and governance processes during this dynamic recovery process. This can enable new institutional processes to be put in place that appropriately manage and mitigate systemic risks.
At the moment, however, risk management processes are inadequate and there is a danger that if this is not addressed now then the UK socioeconomic system will not reconfigure and become ‘locked’ back into an unsustainable trajectory.
Our project will provide an evidence-based understanding of systemic risks involving the environment. We will co-develop, with government officials, appropriate mitigation actions as part of the nation’s COVID-19 recovery strategy. More broadly, the protocols we develop to analyse systemic risk including mitigation options (and subsequent policy gap analysis as an internal government exercise) will enable these processes to become more mainstream in UK policy development, which is essential for a long term resilient recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
Project beneficiaries include:
a) officials in the Cabinet Office working on strategy for COVID-19 recovery, helping them to make the environment more explicit;
b) UK Civil Contingencies Secretariat and Ministry of Defence in assessing environment-mediated risks;
c) Government ministers interested in new approaches to dealing with systemic risk (e.g. MPs in the Environmental Audit select committee);
d) Defra Strategy, Planning & Performance Division – directly addressing a key priority need to articulate how the environment is essential for COVID recovery through maintaining health, prosperity and social cohesion.
We will be providing an evidence base to assist cross-government dialogue on risk management. Other Defra teams will also directly benefit from the work, for example the 25 Year Environment Plan targets teams have highlighted the need for evidence on the importance of the environment for the economy, and the International Biodiversity unit and new UK Joint Biosecurity Centre have emphasised how a systemic understanding of zoonotic disease emergence and intervention factors will be highly valuable for both the current COVID crisis and mitigating future pandemics.