In Unsettled Times, Unprecedented Opportunity for Progress on Sustainability
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic turmoil, and the widespread protests against police violence, the last few months have been a remarkably unsettled and unpredictable time for our entire planet. While it might be tempting to hide under the bed in response, it’s worth noticing some very hopeful signs and opportunities for the sustainability community and thinking about how to address them.
One indicator is a pandemic-driven drop-off in global carbon emissions. The estimated 17 percent reduction by early April was due to curtailed travel, more people working from home, and lower electricity consumption, according to a recent article in Nature Climate Change and US EIA projections .
Carbon emission declines by region, from the Washington Post article “Global emissions plunged an unprecedented 17 percent during the coronavirus pandemic”
While that’s a nice silver lining, it’s barely a drop in the bucket in the broader climate change situation, and a return to business as usual will also return us to emissions as usual. That is a very real risk, and, indeed, we’re already seeing signs of it. Society is paying a terrible price for these reductions in emissions, and it would be unconscionable to discard them. Fortunately, we don’t have to.
The truly exciting thing is that this moment is driving serious reconsideration of many longstanding policies and practices, which could lead us to new ways of doing things in a multitude of areas.
An especially plain example is the move by municipalities worldwide to become more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. Many cities are considering or taking steps that might have sounded radical not long ago, like reallocating road space for bikes, making city centers car-free, and even reconsidering basic urban design principles.
These steps, prompted in part by the sudden absence of cars, have obvious potential benefits for air quality and global emissions, but they’re also an important step towards “reopening” in a period when many will be leery of using public transit. Providing safe and convenient transportation alternatives (especially for workers at the lower end of the income scale whose essentialness has recently been demonstrated) is helpful in reducing congestion in the short run and potentially paradigm-shifting in the longer run.
At the same time, as the bottom drops out of traditional fossil fuel markets, the silver lining is a rare opportunity to broadly re-envision our systems to increase social and environmental equity. As a recent article in The Economist noted, the recent perturbations in energy use could accelerate and amplify alternative energy trends that are already underway.
“This shock, unlike prior ones, comes upon an energy sector already in the throes of change,” says the piece. “The cost of renewables is dipping below that of new fossil-fuel plants in much of the world. After years of development, electric vehicles are at last poised for the mass market. In such circumstances COVID-19 may spur decisions—by individuals, firms, investors and governments—that hasten fossil fuels’ decline.” It goes on to speculate that these changes could result in fossil fuel usage peaking in the current decade and starting to decline significantly sooner than has been estimated. A harbinger of things to come, renewable electricity in the US will outpace coal for the first time this year, according to US EIA .
More broadly, a leader piece in the same issue of The Economist calls on the nations of the world to show that the pandemic can be “a catalyst for a breakthrough on the environment.” It rightly points out that COVID-19 has shown that “the foundations of prosperity are precarious,” that long-ignored problems can manifest with a vengeance, and that when it comes to climate change, “if there is a moment for leaders to show bravery in heading off that disaster, this is it.”
All those arguments are just as applicable to the social issues raised in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and other recent instances of racial violence. Climate change, income inequality, and institutional racial discrimination have all been in the making for centuries and are deeply ingrained in our ways of doing things. And in all these cases, altering the status quo will require substantial political will and sustained public support.
Actions on this level will have hidden impacts and significant social implications. Some are straightforward — in the absence of safe, accessible public transport, transport emissions go up — but others are insidious and deeply intertwined.
Generally, it’s the most privileged among us who have the luxury of living within walking or biking distance of work or being able to work from home. As we’ve seen repeatedly over the last few months, economic, health, and environmental burdens are often disproportionately experienced by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in the US and Canada and BAME ones in the UK. This is yet another effect of systemic racial inequities, and it will be important to assess options, choose paths, and implement changes in a way that centers that reality.
The increasingly wide acknowledgement and discussion of these issues is evidence of a shift in perception and momentum, and the potential for positive change. In unsettled times, incumbents are often more willing to consider new approaches. And recalcitrant organizations, private and public, are confronting a fact that’s long been known in sustainability circles: social and community needs are business needs and vice-versa. Malaise in one area inevitably affects the others.
If the head-spinning events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that conditions can change very quickly, and that actions that have long seemed inconceivable can suddenly seem like common sense.
Those of us in the sustainability community, even though we’re struggling like everyone else these days, can take heart from that lesson. But we must make sure that we take a sufficiently comprehensive look at our options. That means doing, in real time, the urgent work of checking our biases, making sure the boundaries of our analyses are inclusive enough, and helping the voices of affected groups be heard. This isn’t necessarily easy, but it is necessary.
Let’s seize the moment, and advocate with courage, compassion, and the strength provided by our principles, methods, and knowledge.
Here are some helpful resources for sustainability practitioners and others interested in these topics — and remember to vote!
12 books on climate activism: https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/05/12-books-on-climate-activism/
'Racial Justice Is Climate Justice': Why The Climate Movement Needs To Be Anti-Racist:
How to advocate for climate change action: https://mashable.com/article/how-to-advocate-for-climate-change-action/
Black Environmentalists Talk About Climate and Anti-Racism: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/climate/black-environmentalists-talk-about-climate-and-anti-racism.html
About the Authors:
Caroline Taylor PhD, EarthShift Global’s Director of Research and Development, conducts and supports rigorous research and analysis for use in strategic sustainability decision-making at companies, governmental bodies and NGOs. Caroline has over 20 years of experience in modeling and analysis, a decade of it in energy and sustainability. She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Global Change Biology: Bioenergy and holds a visiting appointment with Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California Berkeley. She has earned Bachelor’s degrees in Classics and Chemistry from the University of California at Irvine and a Doctorate in Chemistry (Chemical Physics) from the University of Chicago, and was a post-doctoral scholar at Cornell University.
Pete Dunn, EarthShift Global’s marketing consultant, is an entrepreneurial marketing and communications strategist and writer, serving clients in academia, technology and B-to-B marketing. His journalism background includes eight years as founder, editor and publisher of WaferNews, the leading news publication for the international semiconductor manufacturing community. He specializes in creative collaboration and translating complex subjects into clear messages that inform and inspire.