A green awakening: Making the sustainability part of the recovery

The pandemic has revealed just how difficult it will be to address climate issues

Covid-19 appeared to initially give the environment a new lease of life. Transport halted, factories went quiet, and beauty spots looked immaculate for the first time in decades. As a result, carbon emissions drastically dropped.

And people noticed. For the first time, optimism about the future of the environment rose from 41% in Q1 2020 to 53% in Q2 2020 as lockdowns rolled out.

But as economic activity resumed, the effects were short-lived. Not to mention that the production of single-use plastics and waste has increased considerably, especially as PPE usage surged, and consumers’ shopped more online and consumed more takeout food. In our recent Q3 research, environmental optimism has already sharply declined, signalling that consumer backlash is looming as the reality of the situation becomes clearer. Increased waste due to Covid-19 has also quickly become one of consumers’ biggest concerns, alongside air pollution, showing just how much the issues associated with Covid-19 are starting to play on their minds.

Opportunity to reset

The pandemic has revealed just how difficult it will be to address climate issues. Energy emissions are set to drop around 6% this year, but it’s come at the greatest possible cost – one which nobody wishes to continue. And to reach the goal of keeping global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees, net emissions of greenhouse gases must fall to around zero by 2050.

Making changes like this involves a complete reset of our economies and how we operate.

And we’ve got a long way to go. Analysis from The Guardian found that in at least 18 of the world’s biggest economies, pandemic rescue packages are dominated by spending that has a harmful environmental impact such as high-carbon infrastructure. As we begin to get a handle on the virus, it’s absolutely imperative that governments make the environment and climate change a priority in their recovery plans.

Every industry – from aviation to manufacturing  – also needs to take responsibility to reassess their supply chains, their operations, and make tangible steps forward in tackling this growing problem. Several fashion brands have promised to make sustainability front-and-center to their recovery, while Shell energy plans for a major restructuring as it prepares to invest more in renewable energy. Shopify has also pledged to offset all carbon emissions from Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales this year, highlighting the importance of continued business action even during this time.

Unlike the pandemic, for which there will likely be some kind of a solution in the next two years, tackling climate change is a bigger, long-term battle that will take decades to improve – with catastrophic health, economic, and environmental consequences if we don’t.

Walk the walk

Understandably in the current situation, Covid-19 has garnered far more attention than environmental issues. But our research shows the importance of behaving sustainably, both at an individual and business level, has increased.

In July 2020, around 72% of consumers across 20 countries said companies behaving sustainably was more important to them because of Covid-19.

Consumers also have high expectations of their own behavior too; around 70% also said that reducing their own impact on the environment was more important because of the outbreak. Consumers haven’t forgotten about one crisis during another.

Clearly, consumers’ positive intent is there, but so is their willingness to take action.

The top actions people say they plan to do in the next 6 months are: reduce food waste, walk or cycle more, and reduce the amount of plastic/single-use packaging they use. But they can’t do it alone. Governments, brands, policy makers, and manufacturers are all instrumental in making these ambitions a reality.

For example, something as simple as walking or cycling more (a far more sustainable form of transport) requires cities to invest in dedicated cycling infrastructure and create more walking space. The outbreak has spurred many cities to take action including London’s Streetspace and Mexico City’s commitment to create 54km of designated cycle lanes.

Even if the situation with Covid-19 was to drastically improve overnight, our fight against climate change won’t. The outbreak has shown us just how hard decreasing our energy output really is, and how much work there’s left to do. Businesses, governments, and policy makers need to use Covid-19 as an opportunity to double down on sustainability commitments and investments – inaction isn’t an option. Our impact on the environment was already bad enough before Covid-19, without more collective action and awareness, it could be far worse.

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...