• The links between human and planetary health have been laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis.
  • The world is crying out for a new, more sustainable direction.
  • It's in the power of leaders across the world to deliver this future.

In just a few short months, COVID-19 has reshaped the world. While we don’t know how long the pandemic will affect our day-to-day lives, we can already see the impact it is having in so many areas; the economy, our personal lives — and the environment. COVID-19 is a global health crisis, but it is also showing just how closely our economy and lifestyles are linked to the overall health of the planet.

As we move through the pandemic and begin to think about recovery, business leaders can place a pretty secure bet on the fact that the expectation for strong and well-thought-out environmental strategies will be even stronger than it was before. As my colleague Suzanne DiBianca, Salesforce’s Chief Impact Officer, said recently: “We are facing numerous challenges now, but regardless of what else is happening in the world, the climate crisis is here, it’s real, and this is the decade where we need to act. At Salesforce, the call for leadership and action in the environmental space — from our stakeholders, our communities, and our employees — is clearer than ever amid the COVID-19 crisis.”

The health of the planet is inextricably linked to the health and wellbeing of people and businesses across the globe. Leaders who are preparing to address both with strong strategies and decision-making will set their businesses and their people up for success in the future.

Environmental leadership is more important than ever before

Sustainability has only grown in urgency over the past several years, and business and leadership strategies have reflected that. A 2019 Deloitte study found that more than 63% of businesses have formal resource and sustainability goals in place, and more than two-thirds say they’re hearing demands from customers to increase their commitment to good environmental practices. Employees, too, are sounding this call.

In the wake of COVID-19, leadership on environmental sustainability will be in increased demand, writes UN Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen in an op-ed for the UN. It will be up to our leaders to course-correct. The link between planetary and human health has to guide the way leaders across the world make decisions after the pandemic passes, Andersen writes: "As the engines of growth begin to rev up again, we need to see how prudent management of nature can be part of this 'different economy' that must emerge, one where finance and actions fuel green jobs, green growth and a different way of life, because the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same, and both can thrive in equal measure."

What is COVID-19 telling us about the need for strong sustainability policies?

So what steps can leaders take now to ensure the health of the planet and its people following this pandemic?

COVID-19 has already disrupted the way many businesses across the world operate. In the span of a few short weeks, workforces have had to go remote, offices have shuttered, and commuting has been put on pause. Leaders have had to rise to the challenge of guiding their people through these changes, and many are now settling into this new way of operating.

These shifts are proving effective in slowing the spread of the virus, but they’re also having another effect. The data shows that where COVID-19 has spread, carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution, congestion and related transport emissions have significantly decreased.

A year-on-year comparison of air quality in Asian cities, March 2019 to March 2020
A year-on-year comparison of air quality in Asian cities, March 2019 to March 2020
Image: Tableau

While it’s true that COVID-19 may bring about the first major drop — around 5% — in emissions in over half a century, this is not the way we want to be achieving it, Stanford University professor and Global Carbon Project chair Rob Jackson told Grist. “Millions of people out of work is not the way we want to reduce emissions,” he said. And it’s highly unlikely that these declines will last. As soon as places begin to lift stay-at-home sanctions, emissions are likely to climb again.

What business leaders need to think about now is their role in avoiding the 'bounce-back' effect of pollution spiking again after this crisis. What policies can carry through to protect the planet after the pandemic passes? Can you establish a clear work-from-home policy, where possible, across the company? Can you encourage green transportation options, like cycling and public transit, to keep emissions from commuting at low levels? Can you conduct an audit of your buildings to ensure that they’re operating at the highest efficiencies standards?

For policy-makers and elected officials, the World Bank notes that in the aftermath of the pandemic, one of the key focuses will be on stabilizing the world and its economy in the long-term. That means redesigning subsidies to shift dependence away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, and making significant investments in sustainable transit infrastructure and environmental remediation projects.

Across sectors, these are big shifts to be contemplating. But the coronavirus has already upended our business-as-normal. Leaders need to be thinking about the future and how to set us all up for success in our new reality.

Doing our part to invest in the health of the planet

There is some good news. More than ever, leaders are committing to the health and wellbeing of the planet beyond their own four walls.

In the past several years, business and investor support for environmental sustainability measures has continued to rise. In 2018, a report from PwC found that around 50% of companies had built their impact strategies around several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. More than 90% of the 250 largest companies in the US produce a corporate sustainability report. It’s more important than ever that companies can show their commitment to goals that are larger than the scope of their own business, but critical for the long-term health of the planet.

That was true before COVID-19, and will be even more urgent after the pandemic passes. Data is showing that a driving force behind the emergence of the novel coronavirus was deforestation; as human industry and activity scales up and begins to encroach on natural ecosystems, opportunities for cross-contamination of viruses between animal species and humans skyrocket. If we don’t do anything to radically scale back the devastation of natural resources, and regenerate those we have already lost, we’re setting ourselves up for a repeat of the situation we’re in right now.

For business leaders, the link between COVID-19 and environmental degradation needs to be a call to action to support sustainability measures. And there are more opportunities than ever for companies to commit their resources to helping the planet - such as the effort to plant 1 trillion trees to mitigate environmental losses. For leaders, pledging to limit further damage along their supply chains is a way to show commitment toward ensuring the long-term health of their people and the planet.

COVID-19 has shown us just how much our actions — as individuals, businesses, and communities — affect the planet on a daily basis. It’s also made it clear that unless we act now, we run the risk of exposing ourselves to further threats in the future. Business leaders now have an opportunity to integrate these learnings and work together to enact strategies — within their own operations, and in concert with governments, nonprofits, and each other — to ensure that we emerge from this crisis with a plan for sustainability.