Sustainability AC (after Covid-19); as the earth re-sets should reverting to bad habits be criminalised?

* 4 min read
Sustainability is a particular passion of mine and I could literally talk for hours on this, but I will spare you and try to be concise.

On 1st July ‘Anthropause’ made UK national news and for many this was a new word which means: the decline in human activity that has allowed nature to flourish. The evidence of environmental recovery is amazing and ranges from crystal clear waterways in Venice to dramatic air quality improvements across the world.

The graph below shows the weekly average concentrate of NO2 (Nitrogen Dioxide) in the air in selected cities (Feb – Apr 2020). NO2 is mostly a result of burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation so it should be no surprise that lockdown has improved our air quality.

CovidAirQuality

But will it last? Probably not, unless we take responsibility.

What happens now we can travel more and non-essential businesses reopen? Should we go back to the travel frequency we enjoyed before Covid-19? Do we need to?

I love going on holiday and enjoying the whole experience of discovering new countries and cultures and I am certainly not suggesting to my family that we stop but I would like to think we could do it more responsibly. If we are to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.50C above pre-industrial levels by 2030 then we need to make significant changes.

Many of us have been working from home for months now and we’ve been doing it successfully. We have managed to do this by replacing travel and face-to-face meetings with technology. If we reduce business travel alone, imagine what the long-term environmental benefits could be, never mind (hopefully) an improved work – life balance.

Everything is a balance, in the packaging industry we have seen innovative developments in bio-polymers in the drive to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Embracing bio-fuels could reduce NO2 (generated from fossil fuels) - could this be more widely embraced but without impacting food stocks? Again in the packaging industry we are about to see a huge need for accurate, live and quantifiable data to measure and improve packaging decisions, could this also be embraced across other industries?

There are so many options however sadly, reality is that right now for many, sustainability is harder to achieve in the short term. Many have gone from sustainability focused to cash flow challenges and anything not deemed as critical for survival is seen as unnecessary. We have seen the US Environmental Protection Agency temporarily relax pollution enforcement. We have also seen the re-introduction of single use packaging and carrier bags as reusables rightly or wrongly are believed to be too high risk during a pandemic.

I hope these measures are short-term. Yes we absolutely have to put health and safety first beyond anything else but again there is a balance and why can’t we achieve both?

Thankfully this is not the end of sustainability: the European Council is not abandoning its Green Deal for Europe principles. Stock of companies with strong ESG (environmental, social and governance) credentials have soared in periods of disruption. ESG factors could be even more important post-Covid-19 as investors voice concerns over employee benefits, supply chain management and general responsibility. Could Covid-19 be an opportunity to lean on sustainability even more?

We have seen a huge cultural shift where bad habits have been criminalised, police enforcing lockdowns and breaking up socialising groups of people in public places and in their back gardens. Communities have not only frowned on those who choose to break the rules but publicly condemning littering in beauty spots as lockdown rules relaxed. Frowning on those who choose to pollute our planet is becoming the norm but it is quite frankly not enough. There are consequences from our life-styles, purchases and actions but too many are not visible to us as consumers and now is the time to remove those blinkers and expose the truth.

There is no taking away the tragic magnitude of this pandemic. However with the cultural shift we have seen coupled with the environmental benefits, could saving our planet be a legacy of Covid-19? As we see change happening all around us, I for one would be devastated to see pollution rise back to pre-Covid figures. If this pandemic does have a silver-lining then it has to be the fact that the earth has the ability to recover but only if we allow it to breathe. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, I believe our planet is worth saving and we should not let this unintended positive be a blip but instead a legacy beyond our life-time.