Whilst mankind is facing an unprecedented crisis from the emergence of COVID-19, our planet has benefited from a decline in global carbon emissions during this period. This drop of as much as 17% by early April is welcomed by environmentalists and perhaps the world at large. The landmark “Paris Agreement” made in 2015 during COP 21 has called for a long term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid permanent and irreversible damage to our planet. With a goal of net zero to be reached during the second half of the 21st century, progress since the agreement has been lackadaisical. The disruption brought about by the pandemic thus presents itself as an opportunity for the world to re-ignite itself by making its inevitable recovery ‘green’. Inevitability however is often over rated so we must not take success for granted and draw lessons from this pandemic.
The first lesson we must draw is that humans have taken our planet for too long as granted. Experts have increasingly warned that existential threats like pandemics and climate change are likely to become more frequent as a result of human disregard for our fragile ecosystem. They predict that the occurrence of the former will increase due to increase encroachment into domains hitherto reserved for animals in our thirst for land and resources. As for the latter, scientists have long warned that humans need to reduce carbon emissions that causes global warming. This year’s drop in emissions perhaps invalidates the null hypothesis that human activity does not cause carbon emissions. Hence, long-term change anchored on behaviours that can sustain our ecosystem must form the basis of the ‘new normal’. Corporations have a key role to play for they are uniquely equipped to scale up this change to make a meaningful impact. Siemens declaration of a ‘new normal working model’ that embrace mobile working embodies this spirit. The permanent adoption of mobile working not only empowers employees to focus on “outcome not number of hours”, it helps promote sustainable behaviour. For instance, leveraging technology to reduce commuting and travel in a world where transport is the second largest contributor of emissions after electricity should not be underestimated.
This brings me to the second lesson which is the importance of innovation. Scholars have said that behaviour change may not be enough to reach the scale needed to make meaningful transition to a more sustainable future. They argue that innovation and technology is needed to play a definitive role in helping nations and regions decouple economic growth from carbon growth i.e. “do more with less”. The Siemens environmental portfolio is a vivid demonstration. In fiscal 2019, innovations and technologies from this portfolio helped reduce CO2 emissions by 637 metric tons. This translates to more than 15 times of Hong Kong’s annual emissions of 40 million metric tons. In the green recovery, innovation will also be essential to meet a major shift among companies to manage risk from pandemics whilst striving to adapt to remote work and virtual collaboration. For example, meeting social distancing requirements and contact tracing in the workplace is now a critical mission for every organization. IoT sensors deployed by Siemens-owned Enlighted permit real-time visualization of occupancy and density while making possible digital contact tracing that can expeditiously identify infected persons. Similarly, workplace experience applications such as Comfy allow a safe return to office by combining location, usage and smart building data with user demands. Siemens is deploying this worldwide to enable employees to better plan and choose to work from office, key ingredients in the successful deployment of its new normal working model.
Whilst the pandemic is far from over, we must prepare for the recovery ahead and not forget lessons from this crisis. For Siemens, which just before COP 21 declared a goal to become carbon neutral by 2030, it is the moment to take the lead again by demonstrating how corporations and innovation can inspire change in the new normal ahead.