The world’s response to COVID-19 shows the power of a united cause

Posted in Sustainability on 7 April 2020 By Yvonne Ngo, Sustainability Consultant

As the different strands of society pull together to support each other in these challenging times, what can we learn about tackling the climate crisis?

Like many others out there, I'm currently sitting in my kitchen – bent over my laptop at my makeshift workstation in an uncomfortable wooden chair – as I follow the news on the COVID-19 developments, which are shifting day by day. What’s struck me is how quickly governments, businesses and people are able to adapt to this very different, strange and, frankly, terrifying new reality. 

It has also brought to the fore how dramatic change is possible, and possible on a much faster rate than ever imagined. What will this all mean for business in a post COVID-19 world? And what lessons can we take from the coronavirus pandemic to accelerate our ability to respond to other major challenges, such as the climate crisis?

Healthier societies are better equipped to deal with catastrophe 

We are arguably seeing first-hand the impact of ten years of austerity measures on the NHS. Pre-crisis, the NHS was creaking under the strain of budget and funding cuts, rendering it hard-pressed to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

As global temperatures rise, climate-related impacts will also become more and more exacerbated. We saw it last summer in Europe, as we experienced record breaking temperatures. Those most vulnerable in society, such as the elderly, very young, and people with chronic illnesses and those that work outdoors are most susceptible to death. There is a clear link between social and environmental impacts, and also the ability for societies to face increasing negative impacts and crisis depends on how the interconnected nature of social and environmental issues are prepared for and met. 

Rapid government action is possible and vital

The pre-existing political and economic discourse has meant that, as a society, we no longer believed that it was possible to conjure up a ‘magic money tree’ to direct funds into much needed public services. However, the government is now taking action in this crisis, announcing an unprecedented package of government-backed and guaranteed loans to support businesses, making available an initial £330 billion of guarantees – equivalent to 15% of GDP, as well as £20 billion in other aid, a business rates holiday, and grants for retailers and pubs. 

Government investment, intervention and rapid action and reorganisation no longer appears impossible. As we know from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) report of 2018, we only had 12 years to cut global pollution by 45% by 2030 to keep warming to below 1.5°C. Rising above 1.5°C risks conditions of extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty. Government leadership is critical in the transition to a zero carbon future, working collaboratively with people and businesses to quicken the transition. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the official adviser to UK government estimated that the costs of achieving net zero would be around 1-2% of GDP each year – a small amount compared to the government support promised to meet the coronavirus pandemic.

The role of business is crucial

In this crisis, it has been truly incredible to see how all in society are doing their bit to help, from adhering to social distancing, volunteering to help those most vulnerable access food and medicine – even tattooists are responding to a call to arms by donating their unused protective equipment of masks, disinfectant and gloves to the NHS. 

Every little helps, and the scale of initiatives by businesses can be tremendous. LVMH will start making hand sanitiser to protect people against the coronavirus outbreak, in order to help tackle a nationwide shortage of the products in France. Dyson, after a call from the UK Prime Minister, has designed a ventilator named the CoVent to address shortages, which came together in less than two weeks. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has partnered with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and other tech companies for the #BuildforCOVID19 Global Online Hackathon; an initiative to promote the development of software to take on challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic, which include health, vulnerable populations, community and education, amongst other issues. 

What we are seeing is a redirection of business resources and expertise to combat the challenges brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. If businesses can organise their activities and outputs so quickly in response to a crisis, what could this mean for the climate crisis?

Redefining purpose in a post-COVID-19 world

We are seeing that rapid government action is possible, how plentiful societies are better placed to meet a crisis, and how business is able to recalibrate their activities to meet the issues faced by our societies head on. As we near the critical tipping points of warming, I would urge businesses to think about what their legacy will be in a post COVID-19 world and whether they will be on the right side of history in years to come. 

My final point is a message of hope in this terrifying time, in relation to both the coronavirus epidemic and to the impending climate crisis. Post COVID-19, we cannot lose momentum, and we need to harness the power of business to meet the climate crisis, reimaging a new normal and developing business purpose. 


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