Sustainability in a COVID-19 world – 3 reasons why it matters

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SARS-CoV-2 virus has caught everyone by surprise- the world didn’t see it coming nor was it prepared to deal with it. It has been life changing, with millions of people’s livelihoods and life circumstances affected. There have been talks in the past about the risks of pandemics in a glocalised world, but the realities of a global pandemic are only felt and understood when it mercilessly hits the world. This pandemic is a costly warning that the system we live in is not sustainable anymore, and we have the responsibility to consider and work towards making it the last warning. 

Half a century ago on April 22, 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated around the world to demonstrate support for environmental protection, the global population was just 3.7 billion. Since then, it has more than doubled, reaching 7.8 billion, with more than half living in cities based on a carbon-intensive economic model. By 2050, another 3 billion people will be added, almost another planet of 50 years ago. The challenges we face today, and the ones we are set to face in the future, cannot be overcome with mediocrity and short termism.

high street
Businesses have suffered severe loss during the lockdown due to unprecedented fall in demand

COVID-19 has forced us to pause and re-strategise to survive and recover from the steep downturn, and this has given the natural environment a chance to recover and revitalise itself. However, we cannot survive for long without economic activity and the creation of financial value. 

Millions of businesses are failing in the face of the pandemic and many businesses will not reopen after this disaster. In the UK alone, an additional 20,000 businesses collapsed in the month of March, compared to the same time previous year. The number of new companies also dropped dramatically by 23%, according to data from the Enterprise Research Centre

In a post-COVID world, businesses must endeavour to reimagine a new model of working where there is a balance between growth and the environment, both natural and social. As the wheel of progress keeps turning, it remains paramount to prioritise our fight against climate change and making the world more inclusive and sustainable. 

And here are three reasons why businesses need to move sustainability further up their agenda:

1. A golden opportunity to reset and restart the world

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread at an alarming rate around the world, infecting millions and bringing economic activity to near-standstill. Never before, except in wartime, have whole industries been shut down and consumer demand dropped so far so fast. Going by the latest reports on the economic outlook for this year and the long term, it appears that the impact is not just very real, but lasting. 

But the silver lining of this crisis is that it has provided us with a generational opportunity to re-think the way we live our lives. Whilst the current effects are both negative and positive, there is an opportunity for governments and businesses to use this experience to impact the environment and sustainability the right way.

Organisations can reimagine their models, one that fits the new normal and flourishes in it. We have seen businesses get creative and innovative in response to the crisis, and some of these newly adopted responses could become the norm in the long term. We have seen virtual storefronts, online product launches and VR powered fashion shows during the last months; ingenious responses that had hitherto remained unexplored or even unimaginable.

As businesses struggle to stay afloat, priorities need to be revisited, and resources reallocated. Specific industries, such as aviation, healthcare and energy sectors can be reset, and business models reinvented. We can shape another world, one in which we can sustain ourselves as envisioned in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and collectively prosper, but only if we start from the ground up with lessons from the pandemic.

2. Global warming raises the risk of pandemics, amongst others 

The study of diseases spilling over from animals to humans has received a renewed focus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more studies, including reports from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), support the view that global warming and biodiversity loss raise the risk of pandemics from certain pathogens. 

Number of countries experiencing significant disease outbreaks, 1995-2018
Source: Harvard Global Health Institute

As the clearly visible impacts of climate change accelerate around the globe, including rapidly receding Arctic sea ice, forest fires and increasingly frequent heatwaves, climate change is emerging as one of the biggest security threats, if not the biggest. 

Therefore, to consider COVID-19 as a once in a lifetime event and move on like it never happened without learning anything from it would not just be a wasted opportunity, but a serious error. Rising temperatures will invariably increase the risk of pandemics and other extreme weather events. Fighting global warming should remain a top priority as we rebuild a more resilient world. 

3. The clock is ticking, and sustainability is business’ best tool to manage future risks

In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 list of global risks, the primary items cited are not economic or geopolitical. Systemic environmental and social risks have eclipsed financial and governance issues over the past several years. The new chief executive officer of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board recently declared that “sustainability isn’t new; it is the new face of risk.”

Global Risks

As businesses prepare for the new decade, they must plan for the consequences of climate change, the onset of disruptive technologies and new business models, and demands for transparency from stakeholders including both investors and employees. A new collaborative approach between sustainability functions and risk management can drive stronger, more sustainable strategies to make business more resilient for the changes to come.

A call for Action 

Governments around the world are racing to implement economic stimulus and support packages to keep individuals, businesses, and economies afloat.  While supporting their urgent implementation, we must ensure that these measures pave the way to a more sustainable economy and do not lock us further into a high-carbon future. Periods of high unemployment and low interest rates are the right time for new low-carbon investments and infrastructure, including the kind required to support the transition to clean energy.

‘Union Square Climate Clock’ – An artist’s way of pressing on the importance of the next seven years in addressing climate change and global warming 

Resilience to climate-fragility risks must be part of the thematic tone of development assistance, not an optional add-on. The challenges before us demand immediate collective action, and stakeholders need to act quickly and with purpose within an unsettled global landscape.

It is time to act, and that time is now! 

We help businesses identify, quantify and mitigate climate risks in line with the TCFD framework.

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