Covid-19 has altered our daily lives in numerous ways—some of which may be here to stay—causing us to redefine our concept of “normal.” The pandemic will impact macrosystems and economies and fundamentally change how we work and interact with each other. While this is an abrupt and unprecedented shift, it also presents an opportunity for us to think about how we want the world to function in this new normal. We can rebuild society in a more sustainable way.
More and more, we are discovering that human health and the health of the planet are linked. A recent study by Harvard University found that higher levels of air pollution were linked to higher mortality rates from Covid-19 and some are noting that habitat destruction caused by deforestation drives animals in closer proximity with humans, increasing the possibility of novel viral transmission.
2020 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and marks a decade until major sustainability targets including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s deadline to avoid climate catastrophe come due. Stakeholders such as investors, media, consumers and NGOs have indicated that the pandemic will be a watershed moment and companies will be held accountable for how they addressed sustainability when faced with difficult choices.
“This is a moment when the wheat will be separated from the chaff," John Goldstein, head of sustainable finance at Goldman Sachs said recently, noting that “the stuff that was being done more for appearances or a label is getting constructively rationalized.” Joel Makower, Chairman & Executive Editor of Greenbiz, commented in late March that “this is exactly the right time to be talking about climate change… Doing any less will risk another existential global crisis, one for which there will be no vaccine.”
Many companies and institutions have already braved this moment to reexamine or affirm their sustainability commitments. Blackrock’s* Larry Fink announced on March 29th that the company would be putting an increased focus on sustainability across their alternatives platform. Meanwhile, the U.S. federal government has decided to take a partial stake in airlines as part of the bailout, incentivizing greener commitments in exchange for taxpayer support.
In the wake of any major challenge comes an opportunity for partnership and license for more innovation. This is a rare second chance to rethink our infrastructure, our supply chains and our commitments to sustainability. We may have to redesign our offices—why not design them to be more energy efficient? We are already seeing the environmental benefits of reduced traffic—why not use this time to invest in greener public transportation? The energy, built environment, food, technology, logistics and financial sectors are just a few that could hold the keys to sustainable reinvention opportunities.
Public-private partnerships can also be an important part of this evolution. The world’s response to Covid-19 has demonstrated how quickly and effectively government, NGOs and businesses can work together to create change. Exxon has collaborated with the Global Center for Medical Innovation to create face masks for medical workers, and Ventec, General Motors and StoptheSpread.org have teamed up to manufacture ventilators. This is an opportunity to take lessons from these partnerships and apply them to improving the sustainability of our system for a win-win result. As case in point, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in institutions increases by 13-20 percent when they partner with one another.
Globalization has linked us all together inextricably—it is what makes global pandemics possible, and it is what makes us able to overcome them. But if we take this as an opportunity to rebuild, rather than to simply weather through, we can emerge on the other side better prepared to be stewards of the planet. This pause from “business as usual” may be just the opportunity we needed.
Emily Chan is Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs.
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