Green Templeton Lectures 2021: Dr Giulio Boccaletti on lessons from COVID for green recovery strategies

Giulio Boccaletti Speaking

In the second of the 2021 Green Templeton Lectures, the college welcomed Dr Giulio Boccaletti, an Honorary Research Associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment to share his insights on the lessons COVID responses can provide toward ‘building back better’ in the wake of the pandemic.

Steph Barker, a master’s student from South Africa studying Environmental Governance at Green Templeton reports:

What lessons from COVID do governments need to take on board if their strategies for building back better are going to be credible and effective? In this second installment of Green Templeton’s three-part lecture series, Dr Giulio Boccaletti, an Honorary Research Associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment sought to answer this question.

Drawing on his career in academia, the private, and not-for-profit sectors, Boccaletti outlined three lessons global responses to COVID, and past public health challenges, might offer for addressing the environmental crisis.

Over the past year, governments around the world have mobilized billions of pounds to react to COVID. This mobilization has demonstrated that states are capable of remarkable responses to crises. However, it has left a number of questions unanswered. Is the COVID response a model that decision-makers could use to react to other crises? Specifically, is this how governments should be expected to act in the face of the climate crisis?

In February 2021, the total global COVID stimulus reached $14.9 trillion. Much of the remaining stimulus money will now be directed towards COVID recovery programs.

Currently, global spending on climate initiatives does not reflect the urgency of the environmental crises. As of February 2021, less than a third of global stimulus had been directed toward green initiatives. Acknowledging these facts, Boccaletti insisted that governments, and the citizens to whom they are accountable, need to make sure that this stimulus is deployed to promote a green recovery.

Lesson 1: Emergency requires accountability

Boccaletti outlined three primary goals in responding to the global climate crisis: society needs to eliminate anthropogenic emissions of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), adapt modern society to a warming climate, and avoid ecosystems collapse.

He remarked that technology is often framed as the primary solution to the crisis, but this is only part of the story. The challenge of building back better in Boccaletti’s eyes is not just a matter of developing and deploying new technology. If countries around the world are going to achieve the three abovementioned goals, the surface of the planet and the way land is used will need to be transformed.

During the COVID crisis, governments have drawn on principles of epidemiology, delivered responses through the public health system, and derived state authority from a social contract that puts health at the heart of living together. These ways of thinking about principles, mechanisms and state authority are essential for responding to the environmental crisis.

So, what is the lesson? Sustainable recovery will require sovereignty, state accountability and a national commitment to landscape transformation.

Lesson 2: History matters

In the second part of his lecture, Boccaletti traced the history of public health and epidemiology to better describe how the principles that have guided responses to COVID have evolved over decades.

He told the story of John Snow, the forefather of modern epidemiology, who researched the cholera outbreak in London. In the 1850s, Snow discovered that people who became sick with cholera had all collected water from a contaminated well.

Snow’s discovery had far reaching effects for how doctors and officials understand the role of water management for public health. In response to Snow’s research, the UK Government established the Royal Commission on Water Supply in 1866, and turned their gazes toward the landscape to supply urban areas with clean water.

In the decades that followed, it became common practice for state institutions to impound dams to deliver clean water to cities. Today, this kind of approach is still at play in the way water is collected in the Catskill mountains and delivered to New York City.

By drawing on this narrative, Boccaletti highlighted how John Snow’s project drastically improved life expectancy and paved the way for the development of modern epidemiology. He also showed that for hundreds of years the development of landscapes has been intimately tied to public health outcomes.

So, what is the lesson? Public health and economic imperatives have driven the transformation of the landscape before, and it is possible for this kind of transformation to happen again.

Lesson 3: Institutions matter

In his third lesson, Boccaletti demonstrated that the UK Government’s response to COVID has relied on a set of complex institutions. More than 100 years of epidemiological practices, a capillary network of trustworthy organisations, and a civic pact centered around public health created the foundation for the UK Government to act.

Currently, these same institutional pillars are not in place to be able to coordinate a response to the environmental crisis. Boccaletti argued that the UK Government, like other state bodies around the world, does not have the tools to monitor the ‘health outcomes’ of the planet the way doctors monitor human health outcomes; the network of organisations that manage landscape use is fragmented and decentralized; and, the current models of environmental governance are not as mature as the public health infrastructure.

So, what is the lesson? Effective responses require shared epistemology, institutions capable of delivery, and a constitutional settlement that accommodates a high level of authority. Governments around the world need to develop capacity in these three areas to be able to respond to the environmental crisis.


Boccaletti’s lecture provided a rich historical view of how public health networks in the UK have developed since the 1850s, and how these institutional, and knowledge systems laid the foundation for the UK Government to respond to COVID.

Boccaletti emphasized not only the importance of robust, accountable institutions for responding to crises, like COVID, but also the role that landscape transformations have played in delivering public health benefits in the past.

As we look toward the coming months, these lessons will be crucial for putting forward a vision of a world that emerges from COVID better prepared to meet the challenges of the climate crisis.

Next lecture

Thursday 10 June, 18:30
‘Building back better’ – but on what foundations?

Speaker: Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University
Register for ‘Progress towards a better future’

About the Green Templeton Lectures 2021

The Green Templeton Lecture Series is an annual series of lectures in which speakers are invited to explore a given contemporary theme. These are designed to appeal to the broad college community, and to engage with interested parties from outside college. The 2021 lectures on ‘Navigating the COVID challenge’ are being held in partnership with Franklin Templeton, as an extension of their academic partnership scheme in which the college is a current partner. Under this overall theme, the lectures will focus on different aspects, ranging from framing the coronavirus challenge to key lessons for recovery strategies to measuring the actual progress towards a better future these strategies deliver.

Created: 11 March 2021