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Last updated 05 June 2020 | 7 min read

World Environment Day: change in the air

World Environment Day on 5 June is encouraging businesses to pursue more sustainable models, and individuals to reflect on their consumption. Has lockdown given us the opportunity to create lasting environmental change?

With climate change the defining news story of 2019, it seemed the environment couldn’t rise any further up the list of global concerns. Climate change activism and increasing political engagement pushed it to the top of the agenda, and a line-up of international environmental summits was scheduled for 2020.

Then coronavirus struck, and the world changed almost overnight.

As the virus made its way from country to country, by April this year almost 4 billion people were living under some kind of lockdown. Enforced social confinement, the suspension of much business activity and the closure or reduction of transport networks brought the world to a standstill.

The economic, health and social impacts of this were devastating, with no promise of a swift recovery. And yet out of the tragedy came an element of hope: the significant reduction in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that has shone a light on a more sustainable future.

The International Energy Agency reports that countries in full lockdown have experienced an average decline of 25% in energy demand, with those in partial lockdown showing an 18% reduction. The agency expects global CO2 emissions to fall by 8% this year – the largest ever recorded and six times bigger than the drop in 2009 that was precipitated by the global financial crisis.

Whether it’s the cleaner canals of Venice or the clearer skies over the Himalayas; the sweet sound of birdsong or a spike in the sale of bicycles, stories have abounded of the unexpected benefits that lockdowns have brought to their local environments.

Drops in energy usage during previous crises, such as the global financial crisis and the Second World War, were followed by a resumption in energy consumption – including a rise of almost 6% in 2010. If the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C is to be achieved, and Europe is to become climate neutral by 2050 (an objective at the heart of the European Green Deal), change needs to be sustained over the long term.

Biodiversity and the long view

This year’s World Environment Day stresses that “To care for ourselves we must care for nature”, reflecting the reality that the protection of biodiversity is essential to human well-being. Our sources of food, water, energy, the air we breathe, and often the medicines we use are all dependent on the natural world.

Coronavirus illustrates this interdependency only too well as a zoonotic disease that made the transmission from animals to humans, and raises the issue of human encroachment on natural habitats. The interconnected nature of the Earth’s ecosystems and its human cultures has been acutely emphasised by the current crisis, as neither the virus nor climate change is a respecter of national boundaries.

In a recent open letter backed by the World Health Organization and signed by more than 40 million health professionals around the world, G20 leaders were urged to put public health and sustainability at the heart of economic rescue packages. “A healthy recovery recognises that human health, economic health and the planet’s health are closely connected,” said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, one of the letter’s signatories.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that economic recovery must be achieved in ways that strengthen our global health resilience… This is not the time to go back to business as usual. It is a time to take bold steps forward to create a future that protects both people and the planet.”

Pressure mounts to create change

This year should have seen the COP26 UN climate conference held in Glasgow, now postponed to November 2021, and the IUCN World Conservation Congress take place in Marseille, currently delayed to January 2021. The disruption of these and other environmental events highlights the concerns felt by many that now is not the time to take the pressure off policymakers when it comes to climate change mitigation.

“If by 2030 we have not cut greenhouse emissions by half globally, we will not be able to avoid devastating tipping points that would shatter the global economy and pose existential threats,” says Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat and former leader of the UN climate secretariat, writing in the FT. “The costs of inaction are staggering – $600trn by the end of the century.”

“Many companies have been forced into a low-carbon operating model, working from home and limiting travel. We have to habitualise these learnings to propel a true green economic recovery”

Dr Arthur Krebbers, head of sustainable finance for corporates, NatWest Markets

 

Robert Metzke, global head of sustainability at Philips, states on the World Economic Forum website: “At a time when governments are agreeing to economic stimulus packages to help people and organisations 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 realise 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.”

Times of crisis can bring about great change, as societies adapt to new challenges with resilience and ingenuity – but those changes need to be embedded in order to last. “Covid-19 has been a sustainability wake-up call for many people,” says Dr Arthur Krebbers, head of sustainable finance for corporates at NatWest Markets. “It has forced everyone to recognise that organisations don’t exist in silos and that sustainable business practices – those that take into account all affected stakeholders – are essential. Climate change, if unmanaged, will be exponentially worse for society. In recent months, many companies have been forced into a low-carbon operating model, working from home and limiting their travel. We have to habitualise these recent learnings to propel a true green economic recovery.”

A transition that’s beneficial to all

In making the adjustments required to achieve that recovery and progress to a low-carbon economy, there is understandable concern that the transition be inclusive and equitable. To this end, a €100bn Just Transition Mechanism has been established as part of the European Green Deal to help European regions most challenged by such a transition.

In the UK, chancellor Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning a programme to reskill people who have lost their jobs to work in clean industries such as renewables and carbon capture, and business secretary Alok Sharma has written in the Independent that the UK has “the opportunity to build back better through a clean, resilient recovery that delivers for both people and planet”.

And the payback could be huge – a new report commissioned by WWF and produced by Vivid Economics points to a possible £90bn annual boost to the UK economy, job market and public health from the net-zero transition.

“The Covid-19 crisis and response has seen a mixed bag of impacts on the environment,” says Rishi Madlani, the bank’s sustainable finance lead. “For instance, we’ve had some short-term positive impacts from improved air quality that I’m sure we have all enjoyed, and an ever-increasing share of renewables in our energy mix. 

“I hope we can all take some time on this significant day to think about how a green recovery with an increased use of nature-based solutions might look post-coronavirus, and how we might tap into some of these enforced behaviour changes to accelerate our transition to a more climate-resilient future.”