The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the butterfly effect of seemingly singular actions and emphasised in unparalleled ways how interconnected the planet is. It holds lessons for us on how a more ambitious and collaborative approach to the environment can be built in the aftermath of the virus.
The first of the four laws of ecology holds that everything is connected to everything else. This has become abundantly clear as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has spread to every continent on the planet except Antarctica. The pandemic has underscored our interdependence – states cannot deal with this and other global challenges alone, and our exit strategy from the crisis will be driven by international cooperation.
In April, the Wellcome Trust, co-founder of the COVID Action Platform, invited companies and investment funds as well as philanthropists to raise $8 billion for Covid-19 research, and in May, €7.4 billion were pledged for vaccine efforts at an EU summit (with the United States (US) notably absent).
In the early days of the pandemic, 21 countries donated medical supplies to China, and China subsequently rolled out medical aid to other countries, including South Africa, when the virus spread. Despite the unprecedented level of global cooperation, more than 50 nations put new barriers to trade in place to protect their access to supplies, affecting supply chains, and wealthier countries have been accused of ‘outbidding’ poorer nations for equipment. On 2 April 2020, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for increased global solidarity, including assisting less affluent and most adversely affected countries.
“The coronavirus pandemic may lead to a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us on a global scale,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) asserted. “We live in an age in which intersecting crises are being lifted to a global scale, with unseen levels of inequality, environmental degradation and climate destabilization as well as new surges in populism, conflict, economic uncertainty, and mounting public health threats. All are crises that are slowly tipping the balance, questioning our business-as-usual economic model of the past decades, and requiring us to rethink our next steps.”1
A glimpse of what could be
There is no doubt that the novel coronavirus crisis has given us a glimpse of what moving away from ‘business as usual’ might look like, even if some of those indicators are more about optics than policy. Initial reports suggest that lockdown has mitigated some of the effects of air pollution caused by industry and transport, and temporarily improved air quality around the world. Air pollution levels dropped by almost half in some parts of South Africa during the initial six-week period of lockdown, largely due to lower emissions from Eskom power stations and heavy industry, as well as fewer cars on the roads.
A 2018 study in The Lancet established a compelling link between severe viral respiratory disease and air pollution, and two separate studies have suggested there may be a link between the severity of air pollution in a particular area and the risk of dying from Covid-19 (although it is too early to draw definitive conclusions).2
The closure of factories and the suspension of flights around the world has also lowered CO₂ significantly, according to Columbia University in the US, and there are indications that carbon emissions could fall by 4–8% this year (between two and three billion tonnes). However, this would only be noteworthy if we could prevent these emissions from rebounding and implement some lasting structural changes towards net-zero emissions. The current reduction in emissions will not bring the global temperature limit within reach – emissions would need to fall by around 7.6% each year for a decade to limit warming to less than 1.5ÅãC above pre-industrial temperatures. Only systemic change can put the planet on a different trajectory.
With air pollution and greenhouse gases released from the same sources, focusing on decarbonising various sectors would likely have a positive effect on human health. There has never been a better time to advocate for investment in zero-emission vehicles and low-carbon public transport, and businesses should accelerate the process of investing in renewable energy and phasing out fossil fuels.
Although crucial climate meeting COP26 has been postponed for a year due to Covid-19 lockdowns, action regarding the climate emergency is more critical than ever. To reach the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, all countries need to focus on their intended nationally determined contributions. In South Africa, this means decarbonising electricity by 2050, successfully implementing the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, capturing and storing carbon, and introducing more electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles. The implementation of our carbon tax has been delayed by Covid-19. Policy instruments like the carbon tax are important tools for mitigating climate change and ensuring we do not ‘add fuel to the fire’ of future disasters. According to Reinhardt Arp, environmental economist at World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), this tax is part of a systemic response to climate change that must continue to be pursued. The current Covid-19 crisis might be a window into the potential impacts of climate change that could have the same, if not worse, implications for human health and the global economy.
Recovery post-Covid-19 could give us a chance to reflect on how our urban spaces may be repurposed. Dr Prabhat Upadhyaya, WWF South Africa Senior Policy Analyst, said our cities felt more alive during lockdown in the sense that they seemed to have been built for humans rather than cars. He suggested that once the crisis passes, we look more closely at how to sustain this – perhaps through vehicle restrictions in city centres, doing away with rush hour, or institutionalising working from home.
The use of single-use plastics has also come under the spotlight during the pandemic, as demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers (masks, gloves, gowns, and disposable bags) grew. The United Kingdom (UK) has postponed a ban on single-use plastic that was due to go into effect this year, with some states in the US lifting such bans. In addition, the WEF points out that falling oil prices have led to a decrease in the value of plastics, causing companies to reconsider their sustainable packaging commitments. With plastic products contributing to the Covid-19 fight, we can expect that hygiene will take precedence over environmental concerns for as long as the pandemic lasts – but industry leaders believe this trend will reverse in the long term.
‘Building back better’ with a green recovery
CEO of Unilever, Alan Jope, has spoken of “driving a new model of capitalism” that will protect both planet and society in the future, pointing out that the company’s Sustainable Living division grew 69% faster than the rest of the business in 2018. He emphasised working with partners like governments, NGOs, academics, suppliers, and customers to build a new model of capitalism.
A recent poll conducted in the UK shows that six out of ten citizens want their government to pursue health and wellbeing ahead of growth after the pandemic has subsided. According to Fran Boait, executive director of Positive Money, which ran the poll, governments should not be tempted to pursue policies that boost GDP at the expense of lives, wellbeing, and the environment. If the poll is symptomatic of a sea-change in people’s thinking, it suggests that triple bottom line businesses will be at the forefront of a new, more sustainable economy.
Maria-Jose Subiela, director for Global Goals at Business in the Community, has called for a green and inclusive recovery that will change the way business operates. Corporate purpose should be the compass to guide decisions. She asserts that responsible business needs to be at the heart of urgently accelerating action to meet the Global Goals. In South Africa, the National Business Initiative (NBI) has also called for a green road to recovery, which includes a just transition to an economy considering both the environment and the needs of the marginalised.
Support for green sectors and innovation is crucial, along with green stimulus investments that include growth areas like renewable energy, waste management, and adaptation measures for flood and drought disasters. Crucially, NBI argues, we can repair and restore degraded ecosystems and adopt practices that enhance the integrity and resilience of natural systems as the basis for economic development and competitiveness. In South Africa, the South African Wind Energy Association is pushing for a green recovery plan that will place renewable energy firmly at the heart of an economic stimulus package.
Europe has shown the way with the announcement of its green recovery package in May 2020, with a budget of €1.85 trillion allocated. The European Green Deal will focus on rolling out renewable energy projects (especially wind and solar), driving a clean hydrogen economy, and working towards cleaner transport and logistics. It will also strengthen the Just Transition Fund, which helps coal-affected communities to build diversified economies, thus helping businesses create new economic opportunities.
For business, identifying and managing environmental risks as well as opportunities is a good place to start with a green recovery. Resilience needs to be built into systems – something business has struggled with during the pandemic. The time has come to make systemic science-led shifts towards more sustainable business models if these are not already on the strategic agenda.
Can we use the momentum of the crisis to collectively advance an agenda of systemic change? Humankind has proved capable of rapid transformation in the face of disaster, given sufficient political will and a sense of solidarity. We have tapped into the power of collective action and commitment, collaborating to bring about better health outcomes for everyone. This is a lesson we can learn from as we confront the climate crisis and advocate more strongly for a green, circular economy – something that will ultimately make business more resilient in the long term.
1. Wyns, A. (2 April 2020). How our responses to climate change and the coronavirus are linked.
2. Bowler, J. (21 April 2020). Air Pollution Is Increasing The Risk of COVID-19 Death, According to New Studies.