Coronavirus: Now is not the time for environmental grandstanding

Like many, I’ve spent much of my time over the past days trying to take in ever-changing messages around the very fundamentals of daily life.

As senior reporter for edie, I’ve also been searching for ways to put key research and my own thoughts around environmental sustainability in and beyond the coronavirus pandemic into written words.

Several purely practical questions have arisen: What impact will this outbreak have on environmental policy progression, when policymakers must now divert their attention to rescue packages for the economy? Will businesses back-track on their energy transition pledges as oil prices fall, clean technology supply chains face logistical challenges and sales forecasts change? And what is the role of CSR and sustainability professionals in this climate?

As the hours and days have passed, answers to these questions have begun to emerge and solidify – a process I can only see continuing and accelerating in the coming weeks and months.

But other communications that have been emerging at a pace are theoretical debates – could this pandemic have been avoided or limited if humans had heeded green campaigners and consumed less meat? Or policymakers had acted on air pollution more holistically? – and articles about how wonderful it is that emissions from transport and heavy industry are falling.

In times where negativity, fear and uncertainty seem to be the prevailing emotions, it is only natural to seek opportunities, solutions and small joys – especially when the headlines you see seem to evidence trends you have been working hard to bring about for months, years or even decades. Indeed, promoting solutions and successes are a key part of most sustainability professionals’ roles.

But it is worth considering – given that sustainability, as per the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is as much about society as it is nature – who is consuming these messages. Because, spoiler alert, it is not just those who are in well-paid, secure jobs which also offer a sense of purpose. It’s also those who know one of the 9,000+ people who are dead or 200,000+ people who are sick. It’s also those among the many millions currently fearing for the health of their loved ones, or for their financial security.

As Global Action Plan’s Chris Large aptly summarised when I called him to discuss a separate article: “Compassion starts by understanding where people are and what they are experiencing at present, and acting in accordance with that. And, right now, there are a lot of scared people out there.”

If there’s one thing the sustainable business community could learn from the Green New Deal movement, it’s that theorising about solutions which bear disproportionately negative impacts for marginalised communities will:

a)       Disengage these communities, out of line with the IPCC’s advice that “all aspects of society” must make “rapid and far-reaching change” to address the climate crisis.

b)      Potentially cause kick-backs with social, economic and environmental implications (see the Yellow Jacket protests in France).

c)       Ultimately, not create any real-world results. Theorising is, after all, not planning, implementing, investing, collaborating or lobbying.

Just transition

Moreover, economists and environmental analysts alike are not expecting any Covid-19-outbreak-related emissions reductions to stick at scale.

This is not only because Governments in nations like Brazil, the US and Australia are expected to bail-out high-carbon sectors in order to come back from the current recession – as they did post-2008-recession – and to potentially increase production in order to “make up” for lost productivity, creating what Greenpeace has dubbed “retaliatory” pollution. It is also because the emissions reductions are, ultimately, created by changes that are not economically or socially sustainable for the majority of adults.

While many of us are campaigning for economies in which low-carbon and active travel, or travel minimisation altogether, are the norm; or in which manufacturing reliant on virgin materials and high-carbon heat is substantially decreased, the transition to these models is in its relative infancy on a global scale.

And as we are seeing at present, when economies are shifted too rapidly without holistic planning from businesses and governments, it is those already living on the breadline which feel the negative impacts the hardest – it is not executives wondering whether they will be able to pay bills next month without compromising their health, but front-line workers.

This is not to say that the transition to net-zero, circular economies should not be more ambitious. Indeed, the IPCC set 2050 as a hard global deadline, not a suggested recommendation for nations keen to call themselves “world-leading” on all manner of green action.

But what good are green economies if they are not liveable for the majority of the global population – particularly those who have done the least to contribute to emissions and resource overconsumption in the first instance?

Key figures in the green economy have spent years campaigning for a just transition and, at events and on social media, I have seen swathes of professionals in this space support their calls for social and environmental justice to be coupled – not juxtaposed.

The current climate undeniably provides fertile ground to explore how reduced commutes, transport and energy innovations, or service-based models requiring less raw-material-based manufacturing can bring about environmental benefits. I use the word explore rather than propose or implement because many of us will have extra time, now, for research – but many of our key contacts are not likely to respond well to having theories shoved in their faces before the societal impacts are fully considered.

As we work through these uncertain times, and once we come out of them, environmental challenges will remain to be solved and perhaps, the global response to the current pandemic will provide learnings on how to undertake this task. But certainly, the global response has already provided evidence of the difficulty – and absolute necessity – of creating transitions which are socially just. Not only because of the moral imperative to do so, but because it is necessary to create permanent change at the scale needed by nature.

Image: Eneas De Troya, CC BY 2.0

Comments (2)

  1. William Thompson says:

    Very well put Sarah.
    William Thompson

  2. Sagnik Murthy says:

    A balanced view of two ideas: social progress of developing economies and achieving environmental sustainability in the process – well articulated. Thank you!

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