14 May 2020

Can we make a sustainable recovery out of Covid-19?

How do we steer people to make sustainable choices? As a Sustainability professional, my role is to lead change in our business practices and employees’ behaviours to be more sustainable.  I look for ways to engage our employees to effectively communicate the risks we face from climate change and pollution if we do not act.  As well as highlighting risks, we also promote the benefits to our business, planet and well-being from sustainable living. But in March 2020 everything changed.  We no longer had choices.  The world went into lockdown.

What will be the new normal?

As the world plunged into crisis, the debate started on what it will be like afterwards, what will we have learned?  Every day there are new opinions and forecasts on how our lives will change after the crisis. What will be the new normal? Will the crisis cause a fundamental shift in the way we view the world and the choices we make as individuals and as businesses?

I‘ve had time for personal reflection as the crisis has unfolded whilst in lockdown. My key question is ‘what can we learn that will help us in our roles as Sustainability professionals to support our businesses?’ Every day we see new impacts and opinions on what #newnormal will be, and we need to consider these opportunities and incorporate in our businesses decision-making, so we can #BuildBackBetter.

Travel habits

Perhaps the most significant impact on many businesses is the mandated working from home. The lockdown has proved to employers and individuals that with technology it is possible to work remotely. We have to hope that people will never fully return to their previous travel habits, and that transport demand will reduce, not grow.  Chris Stark, Chief Advisor at the Climate Change Committee advises that it would be better for the economy and for climate change targets to expand fibre optics instead of pursuing road investment. The travel restrictions have seen an increase in walking and cycling for exercise with striking images of deserted roads and city centres. In welcome news, Grant Shapps, UK Transport Secretary announced the Government is reconsidering road investment with a  £2 billion investment in cycling and walking routes. Businesses can build on this policy direction by providing incentives for employees to cycle to work, use technology to work from home, thereby reducing traffic congestion and promoting well-being.

Better environment and cleaner air?

Reducing traffic congestion has had a significant and noticeable impact on air pollution as city centres have emptied.  It has also brought unexpected benefits to energy generation.  Business Green reported that on Monday 20th April UK solar PV generators were meeting almost 30 per cent of the UK’s overall electricity demand generating 9.69GW of electricity at peak for the grid. The reduction in air pollution combined with cool temperatures and sunshine produced optimum conditions.  

The link between air pollution and poor health is already well established with exposure to NO2 linked to health problems and respiratory diseases. In new research published last month, air pollution has been cited as a factor in Covid19, which could make people more likely to die if they contract the virus. Faced with the evidence from lockdown, it is our responsibility to make sure that we never fully return to our previous travel habits. The transition to electric vehicles will bring improvements to local air quality due to zero exhaust emissions at street level and lower noise pollution. The Government has already banned new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and is supporting the development of infrastructure.  If the transition to electric vehicles can combine with changes in travel habits, then maybe post Covid-19 we be able to listen to the birds and walk safely in non-congested cities.

Consumer behaviour

New research from WRAP has highlighted changes in how people are shopping and being more resourceful with food in the lockdown.  Local shops have stepped up and provided people with quality food and great service. People are shopping less frequently due to the lockdown but buying more, including ingredients for cooking at home. A 34% reduction in waste of potatoes, bread, chicken, and milk has been reported. Flour has become a rare commodity as people have started baking bread at home. This reduction in waste is a welcome change from the dramatic increase in waste as a result of panic buying in March leading to disposal of out of date and perishable goods.  We can use this experience to help people to understand better how we source food and how to plan our use of resources to minimise waste.

Science vs Misinformation

For me, perhaps one of the most significant changes in attitude I have witnessed is the exposure of the danger of well-funded organisations that promote inaccurate or misleading scientific data to induce ignorance or doubt.  We have seen the impact of these lobby organisations in climate-denialism but to see the impact during the covid-19 crisis that we are living through here and now has brought this danger into sharp focus. In the US, some of the same lobby groups that influenced the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and promote climate-denialism have also been at the forefront of questioning the epidemiological research that has led to the lockdown. Google issued a statement in April announcing an immediate end to funding of lobby groups that deny climate science or produce deliberate misinformation to inhibit climate action.  In their strong statement, Google referenced Covid-19 as a deciding factor in this policy stating, ‘it has forced us to recognize how, similar to climate change, ignoring the science about an emerging crisis can result in suffering on a global scale, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable.’

Responsible investing has been growing in importance with the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into investment processes and decision-making. Covid-19 has exposed the self-interest in these lobby organisations and should steer business towards better investments.

A Green recovery?

At this time, it is impossible to have any certainty of what the future holds.  Every day we receive new information and see changes to life as we know it. There are calls for the post Covid-19 economic recovery to be a green recovery by delivering decarbonization and not bailing out fossil-polluting businesses. A green recovery would promote those lifestyle changes; the way we travel, reduction in air pollution, protection for wildlife and a focus on health and well-being. We need to keep abreast of these changes, consider the influence on our businesses, and be ready to provide advice that we can incorporate into our sustainability strategies. I believe that what we are witnessing will bring permanent changes in behaviour that will help us to grasp the opportunities to #BuildBackBetter.

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