• COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity to build a more sustainable world, a new report says.
  • The pandemic has boosted awareness of and support for sustainable practices.
  • Business and investors have a critical role in steering the economic recovery.
  • Global cooperation is needed to make the world more sustainable.

More than half a century ago, one of the first images of Earth adrift in space was taken by the Apollo 8 space mission. The shot is often credited with creating an attitude shift that helped inspire the environmental movement.

Now COVID-19 could have brought the world to a similar “Earthrise” moment of realization, suggests a new report.

The Sustainability Trends Report 2020, compiled by Generation Investment Management (GIM), says the pandemic has boosted awareness of the urgent need for a decisive shift to sustainability. The economic and social hiatus caused by the outbreak provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reevaluate how we live, work, and what we want or need to consume, the report states. It could be a powerful catalyst for a more sustainable future.

 This iconic 1968 “Earthrise” photo.
This iconic 1968 “Earthrise” photo was one of the first images of the planet taken from deep space.
Image: Apollo 8 NASA


Great expectations

While the current threat to global health can be mitigated by the development of an effective vaccine, and economies regenerated over time by financial stimuli, there is no simple antidote to the climate crisis, the report warns.

Global land and ocean.
Global land and ocean.
Image: NOAA

Land and ocean temperatures are approaching 1℃ rises above pre-industrial averages, data from NOAA shows. Within the past two decades, natural catastrophes, such as droughts, floods and severe storms, have increased more than threefold – from around 250 in 1980 to almost 850 in 2018.

Despite global calls to reduce emissions from environmentalists, climatologists, industrialists and politicians, emissions remain on an upward trajectory.

Energy related CO2 emissions, 1990-2019.
Energy related CO2 emissions, 1990-2019.
Image: IEA

Since 1990, emissions in advanced economies have remained relatively stable, but have more than doubled in the rest of the world, peaking at 22 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2019, mostly due to the booming industrial growth of emerging economies in regions like Asia.

To stop global temperatures exceeding 1.5℃ above pre-industrial times, the report notes, emissions need not just to stop increasing, they need to fall by 7.6% per year for the next decade, more than the expected drop from COVID-19 in 2020.

Efforts underway

The good news is that it’s not too late to reverse climate change, the report says. But we need new approaches that speed up the switch to sustainability.

GIM sees that while the pandemic has exposed social and economic inequalities and revealed how vulnerable the planet and its inhabitants are to sudden shocks, it has also raised awareness of the fragility of our natural system and the need for a unified approach to fighting climate change.

Environmentally sustainable business practices are on the up, the report shows, and global infrastructure investments are crucially aligned with the transition to net-zero emissions.

Many financial institutions are moving towards more sustainable investments, driven by recognition of the importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and growing calls by clients for ethical transparency.

Responsible investment: An agenda gathering momentum.
Responsible investment: An agenda gathering momentum.
Image: PRI

The UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment is working towards a sustainable global financial system. There are more than 2,000 signatories from institutional investors representing $80 trillion of assets. Climate change risks (and opportunities) are also being integrated into financial services, making a strong business case for more sustainable practices. That said, there is still a long way to go before all investors and companies fully move on from simply maximizing shareholder returns.

Amid UN calls to “build back better”, the pandemic represents a unique opportunity to rebuild the global economy with the planet’s health in mind, according to the report.

Actors like the European Commission, France, Canada and the UK, have put stimulus packages in place which prioritize a sustainable recovery, but the bulk of post-lockdown stimulus packages are aimed at a return to business as usual. But business and investors have a critical role in steering economic recovery towards a more sustainable future.

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.

Contact us to get involved.

The pandemic has shown the willingness of some companies to step forward, commit resources and work with others to help the fight against COVID-19, the report states. A continued attitude of cooperation and redefining stakeholder responsibilities to include the health of the planet is key to an effective recovery.

The World Economic Forum is calling for a “great reset”, in which the world acts jointly and quickly to reinvigorate every aspect of our societies and economies, requiring commitments from all countries to transform every economic sector and build a better, more sustainable society.

If we want to keep the planet looking as it did in that iconic Apollo 8 image, this – it’s becoming increasingly clear – is the moment to act.