- COVID-19 is making the interconnectedness of our world clear.
- The pandemic may be laying the groundwork for the efforts required to tackle climate change.
- These changes will need political and industrial leadership, as well as global collaboration.
Today, our world is changing faster – and in more ways – than we could have ever imagined. With social and economic disruption on a scale rarely seen since the end of World War II 75 years ago, the pandemic is also forcing us to completely rethink the notion of ‘business as usual’.
As some countries start to emerge from the first acute phase of the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis is shifting people’s thinking substantially. Human health and healthcare in general have rightly become the number-one priority for global leaders - and a healthy planet remains fundamental to all our endeavours to make the world healthier and more sustainable.
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COVID-19 is making it painfully clear just how interconnected our social, economic and environmental challenges are. The World Economic Forum emphasizes this in its latest Global Risks report. For the first time, the global top-five risks in terms of likelihood are all related to the environment. Many other studies have focused on the huge impact climate change is having on people: research from Harvard University indicates that people living in more polluted regions are being hit more severely by the coronavirus than others, while another study - published in medical journal The Lancet - predicts that 500,000 adults will die as a result of climate change by 2050. As Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, said recently said: “We can't self-isolate from climate change.”
Fortunately, the general understanding that the climate and our health are deeply and directly connected is growing. Both topics require our serious attention and action.
The COVID-19 crisis is highlighting the interconnectedness of our world. It is also forcing us to acknowledge the immediate need to better prepare our people – especially the most vulnerable – and our planet for the intertwined healthcare and climate change risks. On the upside, it has shown us that a large-scale, comprehensive response to a global crisis is possible, when we all commit to it. It’s the only way to withstand and manage any future unprecedented health and climate crisis.
Creating momentum for climate action
With society already demanding that we – governments, industries, global businesses –address sustainability with urgency, the substantial shift brought on by the COVID-19 crisis may well be laying the groundwork for the radical changes required as we look to rebuild our economies.
According to the World Economic Forum, what happens in the upcoming months could go one of two ways. There is a risk that as the immediate crisis wanes and its economic consequences become clearer, we set aside longer-term aspirations in pursuit of short-term, easy fixes. The climate - as well as the circular economy - may well become less of a priority for stakeholders, customers and industry as a whole, as they focus on rebooting the economy quickly. From experience we know that the temporary drop in CO2 emissions during the last global financial crisis in 2008 was short-lived and that emissions will rise again when this crisis ends. At the same time, important milestones in climate negotiations may well be delayed. And in the event of an economic recession, it is likely that funds reserved for investments in sustainability will be diverted to other projects.
But there is another possibility. With scientists warning that we have 10 years left to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the current crisis could offer an opportunity to tackle the issue head-on. The pandemic is showing us that we have the technology, scientific understanding, financial means and human resourcefulness needed to tackle climate change. This may well be our only chance to ‘rebuild’ and work on an economy that both looks after people and considers the limitations of our world. With so many tools available to us to make headway on climate change, what we need first and foremost is leadership and the political will to apply them.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.
To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.
This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.
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Sustainable development with people as the top priority
At a time when governments are agreeing to economic stimulus packages to help people and organizations survive the likely recession, it’s our job – as global businesses and industries – to make sure that sustainability and climate action are embedded in these packages. We need to step up and work as one to realize this, just as we are currently doing in our fight against COVID-19. Together, we can ensure these key topics remain high on the agenda of national and international institutions, along with accessible healthcare.
For example, EU tendering rules have been adapted to include total cost of ownership, but this is still not broadly understood or applied by national or regional governments, let alone municipalities. They still procure based on the lowest initial cost, regardless of the environmental impact. If we can collaborate and make sustainability a key requirement of tenders, this will support the economy and the environment at the same time. Other examples of green stimulus could be a European alignment on chemical, product and waste legislation to increase recycling and the development of ‘green products’, and the promotion of circular ownership models to consumers.
The need to collaborate is widely recognized and was also emphasized in a recent Oxford survey of financial and economic experts in G20 countries, which highlighted that climate impact potential is one of the most important dimensions of fiscal recovery packages. At the same time, other research clearly shows that countries with an active long-term strategy for approaching global warming targets will be economically and financially better off than others.
This has also been emphasized by Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission, who was recently quoted as saying: “We have to invest in a new economy to come out of this crisis in a better shape compared to how we went into it; ready for the future, sustainable, inclusive, competitive and well prepared […] because it is more profitable to protect the environment than to destroy it. This could just be our best chance to do this.”
Building resilience for a sustainable future
These are challenging times, but challenges are the mother of invention. It seems to me – as, hopefully, it does to many others – that this crisis presents an opportunity to pause, reflect and improve. Our understanding of how to flatten the COVID-19 curve is growing every day. At the same time, we are respecting new boundaries and norms with regard to social distancing. Let’s apply these learnings to ‘flatten the emissions curve’ by realizing a substantial reduction in carbon emissions in line with the global 1.5 °C temperature rise target, as agreed by all signatories to the Paris Agreement.
It is my sincere hope and wish that we all grasp the need to do things differently this time. And that, going forward, we base our economic and financial measures on this shared and integrated understanding, while driving practical initiatives on a global scale. So we can build more resilient and inclusive economies based on regenerative use of resources and fair distribution of the shared value that is created - and we will be better prepared for the next challenges this century brings us, too.