Of all the opportunities for positive change driven by the pandemic, the most important may be the least talked about. And that’s in spite of the fact that both workers and organisations as well as governments and other bodies around the world are aware and in favour of it and its consequences are most far reaching, affecting us all.
It is, of course, the chance to do something significant about the environment. During the first lockdown last spring, the sudden fall in travel and in particular the number of flights and the number of cars on the road. It was a moment of revelation for many people who now profess their desire to continue with a low or net zero carbon lifestyle permanently.
According to research from Cardiff University and The University of Manchester published in the Summer of 2020 by the UK Centre for Climate and Social Transformation (CAST), people overwhelmingly welcome the change in habits forced on them by the pandemic.
Although the researchers expected to find that other concerns overshadowed longer terms worries about climate change, people were in fact more focused on the environment than before. The perceived urgency of tackling climate change was higher during the pandemic than in August 2019 (74 percent up from 62 percent seeing it as ‘extremely high’ or ‘high’ level of urgency). Support for climate change mitigation policies, including measures to decrease travel, especially flying, was markedly higher during the pandemic.
Companies too are exhibiting a new mindset and it’s not just to do with ethics. There is a strong business cases for a shift to a more sustainable business model. Four of these have been set out in an analysis by the researchers Jagannadha Pawan Tamvada and Mili Shrivastava.
Interestingly none of these is about a reduction in costs and consumption but rather how a green mindset can add value to the organisation. These include factors such as increased motivation, engagement and productivity as well as increased likelihood of recruiting and retaining the best talent.
Unsurprisingly, given such a wide range of business benefits, there is a paradigm shift in the way companies are responding to the climate crisis. A 2020 Deloitte report sets out this change of mindset in detail: “More companies have begun to take action to address the climate crisis”, it states. “More companies are disclosing more climate-related information in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures’ recommendations. Nearly 500 companies have approved science-based targets for reducing GHG emissions as of September 2020, for example, a number that continues to grow. Climate and sustainability risks dominated the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, as seen most prominently in the championing of the effort to plant 1 trillion trees to capture carbon. The list of actions grows almost daily.”
Change is also coming at international and national levels too. The European Green Deal sets out how Europe plans to become the first carbon neutral continent. In the UK, the Government has set out its own set of five pathways to carbon neutrality.
Formulated by the Committee on Climate Change, it points out that while the decarbonisation of the UK’s electricity supply has enjoyed great success and expects to be carbon neutral by 2035, work still needs to be done on energy use in buildings, transportation, manufacturing and farming which are higher net generators of carbon than energy production yet have seen slower progress.
The Committee also says that the cost of this shift will be significantly less than previously thought. It has said that for less than 1 percent of GDP, the UK, which will host the UN climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, can use new technologies to reduce 78 percent of emissions by 2035, based on 1990 levels. This will bring forward the UK’s clean energy timetable by 15 years.
Crucially the authors of the report highlight the way that changes to individual behaviour can play a huge role in shifting this target. By extension this will also apply to organisations who will be asked to consider the ways that the behavioural shift prompted by the pandemic can be extended. The report suggests that the main changes should be to the amount of red meat we eat, the amount we travel, especially by plane and car and by installing low carbon heating systems.
Interestingly, a shift to more digital interaction and media consumption is a more complicated issue.
The most obviously analogy for this can be found in the way we listen to music. While it makes sense to assume that it is better for the environment to stream music rather than buy vinyl or CDs, the reality doesn’t necessarily back this up.
Kyle Devine’s book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated nearly two million tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions, around forty thousand more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000.
This is perhaps why people are advised to be careful about the amount of communicating they do online and not assume it is better for the environment than other forms of communication, not to mention talking to each other in person (remember that?). A 2019 report from Ovo found that if everybody in the UK sent one fewer unnecessary email each day, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year.
As is always the case with the environment, everything is more complicated and interconnected than we might suppose, but it’s nice to think that the pandemic may have prompted us to do more to address the most important issue we all face.