Sally Uren, Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, explains what we might learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s only three months into 2020. And already we’re seeing the prediction that this will be an exponential decade proving to be a pretty low-risk bet. Australia has been on fire, Delhi has seen deadly toxic air, parts of the UK are still under water, and of course, the latest crisis to hit the world’s population is the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, or COVID-19. Since it was first detected in December 2019, the virus has spread rapidly, having been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, and, more recently, a pandemic.
The question many of us are asking ourselves is, how do we deal with the new public health crisis while also trying to respond to our climate emergency, as well as the bubbling crises of biodiversity loss and inequality?
But, I wonder if that is the right question. Perhaps a better question is, what can we learn from the response to COVID-19 that might allow us to be better equipped to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in the short space of time available to us?
On the face of it COVID-19 does not lend itself to a positive narrative. On top of the human cost in lives and social disruption, there have already been some alarming economic impacts. To date, it has caused a world-wide slowdown in economic activity, leading to warnings of contracting economic growth. There have been closures, cancellations or postponements of major attractions, events, conferences and sporting events – which could include COP26 in Scotland. Global slumps in air travel mark a serious threat to the airline industry’s bottom line, and the tourism sector as a whole.
But there are some positive signs. After years of skirting the issue, China has finally banned wildlife trade, albeit with significant loopholes. We witnessed a dramatic drop in NO2 air pollution over China due to the country’s lockdown, and are similarly likely to see lowered global emissions overall. As travel has gone down, remote working and conferencing have gone up exponentially, with major tech companies giving away conferencing tools for free. The US government has approved an $8.3 billion emergency package for the country’s COVID-19 response, which will provide vital healthcare resourcing for the country’s underserved populations – this is significant in a country where public healthcare is not a given.
The current situation is already giving us clues as to how a response to a crisis can have potential positive impacts. Playing these forward, I think there are at least three ways in which COVID-19 might also help with the climate emergency.
A catalyst for financial reform
First, the virus might be a catalyst for financial reform.
To switch the entire global economy towards renewable energy, governments would need millions, even billions, in capital to invest in areas like technology development, solution scaling and new infrastructure. With our current, rigid financial system, the transition to net zero is also likely to create stranded assets and financial losses for many companies or economies invested in the current energy system.
COVID-19 is now also creating a competing need for capital, such as the World Bank’s $12 billion fund, to be redirected to keep economies afloat and to tackle the spread of the virus. This will add a layer of stress that exacerbates the risk of recession, in a financial system already groaning with the weight of inefficiency.
Much of this stress derives from the fact that our inflexible financial system is simply not fit for the future. We need one that is geared towards regeneration and resilience. Could the virus become a catalyst for a much needed reboot? More agile and responsive measures such as fiscal loosening to stimulate growth and investments in infrastructure could help governments tackle the crisis – and benefit climate action as well. The virus could provide a compelling reason for global leaders to re-examine how the economy could function differently – taking into account natural assets for example – and accelerate economic change.
Shifting behaviour and norms
Second, the C-19 virus could shift societal behaviour, and norms, for the better.
Right now, people in affected countries are scared and panicking, exhibiting behaviours such as hoarding of essential supplies – which only exacerbates the atmosphere of anxiety and fear. There are also growing cases of xenophobia and racist incidents, which point towards greater polarisation in society. If this continues, when we experience our next climate emergency, we could see further disintegration of societal structures.
But we could also see a spirit of resilience come to the fore, as stories emerge of communities coming together to contain the spread of COVID-19. There is now a stronger appreciation across societies of those who work on the frontline of emergencies, of the more vulnerable in society, and of what we can all do for general public health. Social norms are changing for the better, such as staying at home if ill to avoid spreading germs, handing fellow passengers on public transport a tissue, and washing hands – all fundamental behaviour that we often forget. It is a good thing when norms of basic hygiene, which benefit the more vulnerable in society, are reinforced.
Some of the emerging behaviour changes could also help us to bring global carbon emissions under control – such as the move towards remote working and conferencing and a changing attitude towards travel. If just some of these shifts to on-line and less travel endure post the C19-crisis, we will have made positive progress towards decarbonisation.
Living with uncertainty
And third, COVID-19 could also help us be better at living with uncertainty, experimenting and learning.
We’re not good at ambiguity. We generally like order and certainty. However, accepting the messy, complicated and interconnected nature of the world around is often the first step in designing for systems change – change that is lasting and signifies a different way of operating. It’s pretty clear that nothing short of system change will be needed to deliver the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals. Which all means that the better we are at understanding our messy, interconnected world and using those interconnections to design for transformational change, experimenting, failing fast, and learning from our mistakes, the better our chances of delivering system change.
A rehearsal for the future?
In many ways, we could see the virus as a dress rehearsal for the kinds of disruption we are set to see in the next decade, as we urgently transform entire systems to achieve the SDGs.
The response of policy makers and the business community to the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on the short term – minimising disruption, economic and financial impact, and halting the spread of the disease. Whilst that remains crucial, we also need to keep an eye on the horizon. The transition to truly sustainable systems and business models will entail significant and unavoidable short term disruption. By uniting around a shared vision of what a desired future could look like, we will be better prepared to make short term decisions to tackle system-wide challenges such as hunger, poverty and the climate crisis.
At the same time, we’ve seen that governments and business can take bold decisions with speed and resolve, to support quick behaviour change and ensure resilience. As we know, challenges drive innovation, and it’s often the case that humans respond best to a crisis. COVID-19 has driven governments, organisations and businesses to radically reorganise their operating models. Could these develop into new forms of business, collaboration and investment that support sustainable economic growth, equality and social justice?
As we face down the COVID-19 crisis, we have a chance to get humanity’s response right. To propel us towards a net zero carbon economy, world leaders need to continue to act with the same bold resolve on enlightened policies that shift public behaviour quickly, whilst safeguarding the most vulnerable in society and protecting displaced businesses, communities and individuals.
We have an opportunity to create a story we want to hear, one we can learn from when we look back at how we dealt with COVID-19 – and the challenges that our people and planet face. What happens next is down to all of us.
Dr Sally Uren OBE is Chief Executive at leading international sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future. She has overall responsibility for delivering its mission to accelerate a big shift towards a sustainable future, by catalysing transformational change in global systems