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Walking the Talk
With More CEOs at Home with Their Children, Could This Pandemic Be the Catalyst Sustainability Needs?

As CEOs spend time reconnecting with their children at home, investors open laptops at kitchen tables and policymakers have more time than ever to consider our future; is now the time when long-term, sustainable decision-making will finally trump all else?

Our collective anxiety might be at breaking point right now, but the COVID-19-enforced lockdown has at least given us a few positives.

Social media has become a kinder, more unifying place. By working from home, many of us are finding more time to spend with those we love, to reflect, to read, and generally give our brains a break. Some of us are no doubt re-evaluating what’s really important in life.

While there is a clear link between global disease outbreaks and the devastation humans have wreaked on Planet Earth (deforestation is linked to almost a third of outbreaks of viruses such as Ebola and Zika), the current pandemic is momentarily acting as a band-aid for our natural environment.

You will no doubt have seen the photos of the usually murky waters of Venice now crystal clear, the locals declaring that “nature just hit the reset button on us.” Of course, the air quality within big Italian cities has improved, too. Animations released by the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite show that since the country went into lockdown in early March, nitrogen dioxide levels in have dropped by 40 percent.

In China, the epicentre of the virus, the fall in demand for electricity (driven by a fall in productivity in the country’s thousands of factories) has resulted in a similarly dramatic fall in greenhouse gas emissions.

With plants shut down, output has fallen by up to 40 percent in some industrial sectors. This could see last month’s Chinese carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fall by more than a quarter, during what would have been a busy, heavily polluting period straight after the Chinese new year. In the same period last year, the nation pumped 800m tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Early analysis released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests the current outbreak might shave up to 0.5 percent off global oil demand through to September, further reducing our 2020 global carbon footprint.

Of course, the band-aid will soon be ripped off, with a rampant community of companies anxious to return to business-as-usual. But as we all ponder what the world will look like on the other side of this pandemic, the ‘new normal’ is yet to be defined. After all, disruption often throws up plenty of opportunity for innovation and renewal.

That is certainly a message coming through loud and clear from a range of climate scientists, activists and campaigners right now.

IEA head Fatih Birol is among them — he, of course, wants to see any stimulus packages to support economies getting back on their feet after COVID-19 prioritise clean energy over fossil fuel industries:

“This is a historic opportunity for the world to, on the one hand, create packages to recover the economy; but on the other hand, to reduce dirty investments and accelerate the energy transition.” — IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol

The NGO Transport & Environment, meanwhile, is calling on European governments to put conditions on financial support for airlines so that they start to use more low-carbon fuels once planes return to our skies.

Elsewhere, campaign groups such as New Zealand’s Generation Zero are convinced that in recovering from the pandemic, policymakers are able to create a win-win scenario.

With the brakes firmly on travel and economic growth, governments have an “opportunity to head down a decarbonised pathway, rather than clinging desperately to business-as-usual where we continue to do a disservice to these industries who need help in transitioning to a zero-carbon economy,” says the group’s Dewy Sacayan.

Campaigners won’t, however, be under any illusion that their demands will be easily met. In the US, industries clean and dirty will be tripping over themselves in the queue to grab a share of the Trump administration’s $1 trillion stabilisation package, a huge chunk of which will go to the airlines.

But what we might all take comfort from is the ability of governments and central banks to develop huge financial-assistance packages when pushed to do so. The extraordinary scale of the response from many nations could set a precedent for similar measures to be scaled up and rolled out to tackle the climate crisis.

Having said that, we’ve been here before. As the world recovered from the economic crash of 2008, economies had a chance to remodel in favour of sustainable principles. But the desire to “get back to normal” was stronger than attempts to overthrow the status quo — emissions continued to grow; deforestation continued, unabated. In some corners, environmental protection laws were rolled back, all in the name of economic growth.

As CEOs spend time reconnecting with their children at home, investors open laptops at kitchen tables and policymakers have more time than ever to consider our future; is now the time when long-term, sustainable decision-making will finally trump all else?

Only time will tell.