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The Next Economy
How COVID-19 Has Impacted Sustainability, Climate Change Strategies

COVID-19 showed us that we can respond quickly to a crisis, and that industry collaboration is an achievable goal. Looking ahead, we have an opportunity to redefine our planet’s future by setting more ambitious sustainability goals and shortening the timeframe in which we deliver on them.

2020 was an unprecedented year — filled with catastrophic climate events, political turmoil, social unrest; and most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic. While this year has challenged government leaders, businesses and individuals alike, it has also driven global leaders to overhaul traditional operations and beliefs — and sustainability is becoming a growing priority on the executive agenda. 

While conversations surrounding sustainability took place throughout the year, September’s Climate Week made an especially large impact on current efforts. The event took place under the lens of this fraught global environment — with political and corporate leaders coming together to discuss the overarching impact climate action will have on society, and how to push progress in the coming year. 

For corporate and government organizations to accomplish the ambitious goals that were set throughout 2020, we must examine COVID-19’s effect on sustainability and climate change efforts further; as well as discuss how climate action must evolve on a global scale in 2021 and beyond.

The initial impact of COVID-19 on climate action

The onset of COVID-19 caused an immediate shift in global priorities. Countries quickly had to refocus their efforts to ensure the health and safety of their citizens, which took a toll on economies worldwide. With estimates indicating the virus could trim global economic growth by up to 6 percent this year, it would be reasonable to assume that corporations would relegate climate action and global sustainability strategies to the backburner. However, we’ve seen the opposite: Major corporations across industries — including Barclays, Biogen, General Mills, Google, Intel and Tetra Pak, to name a few — announced bold sustainability commitments in the midst of COVID-19.

So, what caused this influx of commitments? COVID-19 has highlighted the need for strategic disaster preparedness plans — which in turn increased the urgency behind preparing for climate change, resulting in minimizing COVID-19’s impact on climate change. Mexico City serves as a prime example of this push towards a sustainability transformation. After COVID-19 halted public transportation operations in the city, bike usage soared. Seeing an opportunity to both alleviate the risks of public transportation and decrease carbon emissions, the government collaborated with key transportation stakeholders to plan 130 kilometers of temporary bike infrastructure

Looking at pandemic response efforts more broadly, successful companies and governments used science and technology to model and test the spread of the virus. Those insights were then used to quickly shift operations, and form coalitions to implement necessary measures. As organizations begin to analyze the efforts they took at the start of the pandemic, they should evaluate how their strategies can be utilized across their operations — especially analyzing how these levers can be employed to better plan and execute on climate-resiliency efforts. This concentrated effort will lead to more aggressive, data-driven sustainability and climate strategies.

While the events of 2020 were unexpected to say the least, they have only accelerated the need for deliberate action against climate change. Looking ahead, business and government leaders must implement several trends on a global scale to create a more sustainable future.

Charging forward on sustainability transformation

The continuous conversations all year long made one point abundantly clear: sustainability programs set organizations up for success. An ENGIE Impact report, which surveyed more than 200 global executives, found that 75 percent of executives believe that successful execution of a sustainability strategy will provide a competitive advantage. However, only 30 percent of this group believe they are successfully executing on their current strategies. So, how can this ambition be translated into actionable results going forward?

First, sustainability must be at the core of every organization — and be driven, communicated and championed from the executive level. Companies with early success are those that have invested in tools to measure emissions and understand risks, engaged with stakeholders, enacted change across the organization, and are willing to take chances to innovate. Employees and stakeholders are also holding companies accountable for this integrated strategy. A survey conducted earlier this year by Glassdoor found that 75 percent of employees ages 18-34 expect their employer to take a stand on important issues, including sustainability and climate change. 

Second, while we’ve seen an uptick in carbon-neutral commitments, to truly be successful in combating climate change and reducing global emissions the equivalent of 1.5° Celsius, we must pivot from focusing on carbon neutrality to focusing on becoming carbon regenerative — a process that restores, renews or revitalizes an organization’s own sources of energy or materials; and integrates business needs with the integrity of nature. This strategy demonstrates how sustainability is becoming strategically integrated not only into a company’s operations but extending into its products and services in a way that benefits communities. And some early adopters, such as Walmart — which announced its ambition to become a regenerative company during Climate Week — have made great strides here. 

Last, corporations must reframe their mindsets when it comes to collaboration. The business world is understandably competitive by nature; however, to accomplish a true sustainability transformation, organizations must break down their silos and work together as a problem-solving group. This need for collaboration also extends to private-public partnerships. For example, the UN Global Compact recently announced a taskforce of CFOs who will, over the next 24 months, convene to share ideas, develop new capital investment frameworks, and provide recommendations to CFOs and finance organizations to unlock private capital and create a market for SDG investments. Joint efforts such as the UN Global Compact will help revolutionize current sustainability commitments, and will drive change in a way that was once considered unrealistic. 

From initial commitment to 365 days of effort and action

COVID-19 has shown us that governments and businesses can respond quickly to a crisis, and that industry collaboration is an achievable goal. Looking to 2021 and beyond, we have a great opportunity to redefine our planet’s future by setting more ambitious sustainability goals and shortening the timeframe in which we deliver on those commitments. As we are closing the first year of the Climate Decade, it is more than ever time to act, using lessons learned from the pandemic response efforts, integrating sustainability into corporate culture, intensifying commitments and collaborating to make the change real. Our future can be sustainable, if we move from talk to action.