Earth Day under lockdown was like nothing we’ve ever seen before —what we learned about our relationship with climate change

By Susan McGeachie | April 22, 2020

Mother Nature hit us hard this year on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. She gave us glimpses into a future that will be difficult to ignore once we regain control of our health and economic systems and settle in to our “new normal”.

With a better understanding of our individual and collective impacts, and unprecedented evidence to demonstrate what’s possible, we need to focus on eradicating all remaining barriers to taking the most sustainable pathways forward.

How a global pandemic shed light on our fraught relationship with climate change

In addition to rampant health and economic impacts, the spread of COVID-19 has served as a rather illuminating global climate experiment. Here are 3 important things we’ve learned about ourselves and our planet in 2020:

  1. Collective climate action works. This year we’ve been given a unique glimpse into how quickly nature can restore itself. The reduction of many industrial activities has resulted in clear skies in India and previously rare sightings of dolphins in Italy. While China was one of the countries particularly hard hit by COVID-19 with just under 5,000 deaths, research out of Stanford estimates that the reduction in air pollution created by the lockdown will save approximately 50,000 lives. Clearly a worldwide quarantine and severe limits on global economic activity isn’t a sustainable answer to environmental protection. But it does indicate the need for a more urgent, thoughtful and interconnected strategy for sustainable development.
  2. Failure to prepare has devastating economic consequences. Despite all signals indicating that a transition from high to low emissions energy sources is very likely to occur over the next decade, we continue to use business-as-usual assumptions in long-term investment decisions. A feeble effort toward clean energy and technology development as well as training for the jobs of the future will leave resource-based economies like Canada and Australia behind. We can’t afford to lose our share of the accelerating global low carbon market. In 2018, the spread of infectious diseases appeared and remained on the top 10 most impactful risks in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Survey. Yet we were very poorly prepared for this pandemic. Will we take the same approach on climate change? The economic consequences are expected to be even more pervasive and enduring if so.
  3. Sustainable companies are more resilient. The economic growth opportunities in a low carbon transition are massive. They include the creation of more resilient and socially inclusive jobs as new industries rethink traditional operating models. So too are the underlying environmental benefits. Well managed companies understand this. Research from AXA Investment Managers showed that companies with leading environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance have had more resilient share prices during this recent market decline. A recent article by Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney predicts that this pandemic will increase the already growing influence of societal values and expectations on corporate value. This influence, Carney notes, will be tested in how we respond to climate change, as the associated risks can only be addressed, and opportunities realized, “if we act in advance and in solidarity”.

The need for adaptable governance structures, policy frameworks and financing options

When it comes to making climate-friendly changes, governance impediments and other structural barriers remain in developed and developing economies alike. For example, we still struggle to finance and develop alternatives to diesel-powered generation in Canada’s north, despite the availability of lower-carbon energy technologies and deep technical capabilities. One simple solution, as demonstrated by a team of young and innovative analysts, is to incorporate diesel transportation costs over the life of new or refurbished diesel power stations into the investment analysis of alternative energy technologies. In South Africa, political uncertainty and national utility performance stand in the way of fully deploying the full USD $15 billion in investment raised through the country’s innovative Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP).

Surely the policy frameworks and financing mechanisms that were constructed by us to serve previous economic conditions can be changed by us to meet the needs of new ones.

We have the vision, the knowledge, the technologies, and the skills to achieve a decarbonized world. We’re more virtually connected right now than we’ve ever been. Let’s use this lockdown to design transformational climate change solutions so that once we emerge—bad hair, beards and all—we can start to build.