The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is reshaping our world in profound ways. It has exposed the fragility of our economic modus operandi, and the highly globalised supply chains that underpin it. But while a recession looks likely in many parts of the world, the other ramifications of this virus remain far from certain.
The environment is good case in point. Debate is currently ongoing about whether COVID-19 will lead to an increase in our commitment to mitigate climate breakdown or the reverse. On the one hand, the state’s provision of economic life-support gives governments a huge opportunity to influence the direction of travel post-lockdown. Loans, for instance, could be predicated on businesses agreeing to incorporate greater resilience and sustainability into their operations, future-proofing themselves against a variety of existential threats.
As well as this, COVID-19 has forced our societies to base their actions on the advice of scientists; epidemiologists govern our lives at present. While the timescales of their disease transmission models are not comparable to those used in climatology, this experience has nonetheless compelled our politicians and populations to listen to experts; to trust and respect their knowledge and conclusions. There is every chance that this increased legitimacy will spill over into discussions about the environment, granting climate scientists and ecologists a level of political authority they should have had for decades.
On the other hand, the desperate need to restart our economies and get their money-making engines roaring again may lead to a spike in emissions-heavy activity once lockdown is lifted. Countless cooped-up citizens will want to fly away from their isolation bunkers and reconnect with the world they temporarily lost access to. Whether it’s for a holiday, to visit relatives or get business deals back on track, air travel is likely to spike.
At the same time, airlines themselves are lobbying the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to amend CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. The industry claims its strained business models won’t be able to cope with the lower emissions baseline that will result from COVID-19’s effects on their operations. What is certain is that they won’t be the only sector calling for more regulatory leniency post-lockdown, as struggling businesses across the globe attempt to get back on their feet after a disastrous couple of months.
These competing influences make it difficult to predict whether COVID-19 will ultimately prove a boon or a burden for the environmental agenda. In a sense, though, worrying about such outcomes is a distraction because regardless of how businesses feel post-lockdown, the climate crisis isn’t going away. The amount of time and the amount of emissions we have left before the 1.5°C target becomes impossible remains unchanged. We must not lose sight of that fact.
Moreover, if there is one overarching lesson to be learnt from our response to COVID-19, it is that any delay in reacting to a threat can lead to exponential increases in both the scale of the problem and the danger it poses. Climate change will be no different.
There will be some positives we can glean from this public health crisis. One will be that we learn a lot from simply living through the experience of a pandemic. The corresponding economic slowdown, though clearly detrimental overall, potentially offers us another: the time for reflection.
With many businesses’ core operations hit hard, some now have the capacity - and headspace - to focus less on the immediate, day-to-day running of their companies and more on long-term, strategic goals like resilience, sustainability and purpose.
For the businesses that can, now is a good time to be self-evaluating and asking fundamental, even existential, questions:
‘Are our supply chains resilient?’
‘How can we adapt and remain competitive, going forward?’
‘Is our business model truly sustainable? If not, how can we make it so?’
‘What does our business understand sustainable to even mean?’
THE THREAT OF CLIMATE CHANGE ISN’T GOING AWAY:
COVID-19 will continue to cast a long shadow over our lives for many months to come. Much of the damage it has done, and will do, is out of our control. But within our power to change is how we spend the time this economic eclipse has granted. By using it to square up to the other threats our businesses and societies face we can achieve something useful, and not only despite the current lockdown but because of it.
The bottom line is that no matter how long we are dogged by this coronavirus, we still have to face up climate change together. That threat isn’t going away, and neither are we.