Sustainability and COVID-19

Pandemics are unique among disasters in that they attack the whole world at the same time – and in this manner, the new Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has shown itself to be flawless. As it marches around the globe, many of the countries with escalating outbreaks have looked to how the extreme lockdowns in China brought that country’s situation under control, and have chosen the same path by limiting movement within their own borders and imposing extensive social distancing among citizens. This method is the most effective in controlling the infection rate but might also, over time, effectively tank the world’s economy. It is not an easy decision for any government to close down businesses, but the longer-term economic effects of not doing so could be far worse.

Another unintended result of the outbreak in countries with stringent lockdowns is a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in China, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 25 percent since the crisis began, coal consumption in power plants has dropped 36 percent, and oil refining capacity has been lowered by 34 percent. The quality of breathing air has significantly improved while people are, paradoxically, wearing masks. Regrettably, these environmental benefits in China are expected to disappear with the reopening of factories in the Hubei province.

Spain’s production of energy from renewable sources (wind, solar power, and biomass) plays an important part in the country’s economic model. Spain is the sixth-largest energy consumer in Europe and has virtually no domestic production of liquid fuels or natural gas. Due to lockdown, a near-term decline in power demand is expected. Extended capacity will halt for weeks and prices will eventually collapse, damping the economic system even further. Nevertheless, consumers will be happy that electricity bills will be significantly reduced.

The Spanish government was pursuing energy and climate-change actions before the outbreak (for example, incentivizing self-production of solar power with lower property taxes for homes) but now that energy prices are expected to hit rock-bottom, the payback period of these investments will lengthen significantly. It is likely that this transition to self-produced renewable energy will now decelerate.

We tend to think of climate change as a slow and steady process, following a fairly predictable, even manageable path. That is a mistake. In fact, the result of continuously heating our planet could very well be an ongoing, accelerating series of disasters –disasters that eventually lead us to the point of no return.

A key lesson that emerges from this coronavirus catastrophe is that it is possible to control an escalation of effects by limiting the actions of individuals. Our fellow citizens are willingly staying at home to save those with a higher risk of hazardous infection. Communities are postponing agendas that might be in their best interest for that of the greater good. Each of us are individually contributing to the collective action by simply staying home in order to slowing the rate of contagion.

“Long-term memory” is how we define the way information is stored in our brains over a period of years. Traditional educational systems use repeated stimuli separated in time to achieve this, but there are alternative methodologies. I’m sure that each one of us can remember exactly what we were doing when the planes struck the World Trade Center. Impactful experiences – even when they are singular events – can also create long-term memory.  These pivotal moments in life, like the one we’re facing now with Covid-19, register into our individual and collective consciousness forever. It’s during times like these that we challenge our belief system and our role in this complex and interconnected network that represents the world in which we live.

Traumatic experiences have reshaped societies in abiding ways in the past, forcing us to learn from our failures and adapt new ways of doing. Take for example how the September 2001 events defined new security and surveillance protocols, or how the 2008 financial crisis determined the way we now buy houses or open new businesses. Society – much like the humans that it compose it – is adept at adapting to this fast-paced, ever-changing world.

Extreme weather, polluted air, economic inequality, geopolitical tensions, biodiversity loss.  All of this is such a habituated part of our every day that we are desensitized to the magnitude of the critical and unsustainable situation facing our planet.  But, in this pivotal global moment that the coronavirus has presented, we can glean what collective effort could do to help the planet.

This pandemic has shown that we are ready to put aside individual priorities in order to contribute to the collective welfare, that we are ready for a behavioural change. Now, let’s apply this to the environment. It is time to reorient our political, economic, and social systems at all levels and to help citizens begin to think and behave in ways that foster a more sustainable planet.

We are ready to ask each other and ourselves: what will you do to change?

By Isabela del Alcázar, BSc, MSc and PhD Global Head of Sustainability at IE University

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