Sustainable Development GoalsSocial justice

5 sustainability lessons learnt from the Coronavirus crisis

Lessons from the pandemic for sustainability

19.01.21Olly Lawder

This time last year I foolishly tried to predict the six big questions that would shape sustainability in 2020. None of them, of course, touched on the global pandemic that was to so radically define the year ahead.

While, in some respects “we were all in it together”, it is also clear that the effects of coronavirus crisis have varied greatly: demographics, health, household set-up, community culture, structural inequality and blind luck have all intersected to shape individuals’ experience of both the virus and its (mis)management.

Nonetheless, our collective experience of the last year has given us a new lens to look forward through. It has shown us some of the big challenges involved in responding to complex, shared threats. In doing so, it has given us a gift of foresight into some of what we will have to overcome while helping society transition to a more sustainable future.

So, rather than make a host of new predictions for 2021, it feels more appropriate this January to take time to reflect, and to try and highlight a few learnings that will help us all get ahead of big challenges we’re likely to face down the line.

While there are undoubtedly more than I’ve spotted myself here are my big 5:

If we don’t apply systems thinking we could make things worse

It may seem obvious to think of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the resulting disease COVID-19 as a health crisis. Perhaps, in the earliest days, this was the clearest way to conceptualise it.

However, when it became pandemic it also became a complex, multi-faceted challenge. At its heart appears to be a hard trade-off between public health and the free functioning of large sections of our economy. And yet, the more this tension is investigated and understood the more complex the situation becomes. Significant economic damage can itself translate into a health crisis as unemployment and poverty spread and deepen. In addition to this, the separation and isolation of social creatures has compounded our physical health challenge with the mental health crisis of rising depression, anxiety and suicide rates.

Protecting public health can also be more complex than it first appears to. We have a virus that is a clear risk to the elderly and yet we seem unable to effectively isolate them from the disease. Instead, we have inexplicably isolated individuals at very low risk, the absurdity of locking students in their university dorms serving as the perfect example. Being over cautious in the wrong places can store up new health crisis for the future, for example, it is estimated that almost 1m women have missed their breast screening check-ups, meaning that over 8.5k could be currently living with an undiagnosed cancer.

As sustainability professionals we have a broad understanding of what good looks like (e.g. the SDGs) and we have a general roadmap for how to get there (e.g. halve emissions by 2030). We believe we know what ‘the right thing to do’ is, but we must continuously “stay alert” to the interconnected complexity of the actions and interventions we advocate for. We are motivated to create change but creating change is a risky business. Only by thinking systemically can we avoid unintended consequences, missed opportunities and accidentally undermining our own objectives; lest we give meaning to the phrase, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

The metrics matter

Cases, hospitalisations, r-numbers and deaths. These daily numbers have come to dominate our headlines and justify a year of unprecedented political intervention into our daily lives. However, one thing we have seen is that society is perfectly capable of considering a wider set of metrics alongside the classical economic favourites of GDP and unemployment. Indeed 2020 also saw PM Jacinda Arden launch her ‘wellbeing economy’ and its corresponding budget to focus on “true measure[s] of success” that will make New Zealand a “great place to make a living and to make a life”. There’s a long precedent to efforts to embed a wider set of metrics beyond growth at the heart of our economies but perhaps now is the time that change will really take root.

The pandemic also helped to illustrate one of the key challenges of a metrics-driven approach; we can rarely measure exactly what we would like to. At the time of writing the big number we use to capture the impact of the virus on human life stands at around 80,000. However, this figure is not the number of people who have died from coronavirus, it is the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive test for COVID-19 and could include, say, a victim of a road traffic accident who had tested positive over three weeks before they entered A&E or a 90 year old with numerous health issues, including the virus. What’s more, the number for ‘cases’ does not tell us the number of cases, it tells us the number of people who have tested positive from a PCR or lateral flow test, and it is not adjusted to try and compensate for false positives, false negatives or the ratio of tests to positive results. My point is not that these numbers aren’t useful – a relative increase or decrease in either of these metrics should be able to signal new infectious strains and the effectiveness of vaccine roll out respectively – it’s that we must remember that most metrics are just proxies for what we really want to know.

Why does this matter? Because the scepticism around coronavirus, lockdowns and vaccines comes from two sources. The first is an emotional reaction built on mistrust, frustration and fear. But this is supported by a second, more rational assessment picking holes in exactly the sorts of things I mentioned in the paragraph above (see here for a typical example). I believe that engaging with and responding to sceptics is the best way to continue to build consensus, and that they may even have something valid to contribute on occasion! To be clear, I’m not talking about conspiracists here, those who think the virus doesn’t exist and that Bill Gates wants to stick a chip in everyone’s arms are a different category, and probably best ignored.

We should remember then, that if “what gets measured gets managed”, we need to be careful that metrics are not beyond scrutiny and that they inform our decisions, not determine them.

There’s opportunity in a crisis

2020 could have been a year that climate change went on the back burner as we struggled with a more tangible and immediate threat. It certainly felt like the apparent government disinterest in, and subsequent cancellation of the Glasgow COP 26 summit was a troubling signal in the early, frantic noise of the crisis. However, I believe 2020 will ultimately be seen as an unexpected accelerant towards a sustainable future.

In many ways the coronavirus crisis made the path to a sustainable future more tangible than we could have ever anticipated. While our graphs may have shown us a 7% drop in global emissions, for millions of citizens their quieter, cleaner and greener urban streets showed them the possibility of living in a city that isn’t orientated around private car use. Although many councils have seized the moment to roll out Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (a little clumsily in some cases), some degree of return to the old normal of busy, polluted streets will be inevitable as we exit the pandemic. Nonetheless, we will be working with a population who have personally experienced how much better their cities could be.

It has also been a remarkable year for net zero carbon commitments (one subject I did see coming last January) and we’ve seen public commitment from Vodafone, Diageo, Google, Siemens, Sainsbury’s, Sky, The Crown Estate, Tesco, Vodafone, Selfridges, Unilever, Ikea, L’Oréal, Chanel, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, BP, Axa, Ford, BT and Facebook among others. It’s true that not all of these commitments are as broad or rapid as they need to be but what we do have now is a ‘new normal’ where a net zero carbon target is considered best practice.

The crisis also inspired bold efforts to deliver hand sanitiser and we saw established businesses like LMVH and challenger brands such as Brew Dog re-tool their production lines to deliver much needed supplies. The level of challenge and uncertainty the year brought has helped to turn up the conversation on ‘business purpose’ with fantastic events hosted by The British Academy and Campaign’s Purpose Summit. At Futerra we’ve also found a greater appetite and higher ambition level from clients, colleagues and partners alike, all of us driven by a shared feeling that ‘the time is now’ for bold, meaningful action.

There’s been a long-standing metaphor in sustainability that equates putting the economy on a sustainable path to turning an oil tanker around to face the opposite direction: in other words, an inevitably difficult, slow and incremental process. 2020 however, showed us that our journey is closer to navigating a sailing ship; we can do our best to steer it towards favourable trade winds, but the ‘weather‘ is beyond our control and while an unexpected storm may steer things off course, it can also power them forward.

Values shape the landscape

I remember in Easter last year a few cautious commentators speculating that this crisis may bring us together and give us a common cause that would act as a counter force to the increasingly polarised, aggressive and censorious tone of public discourse. Indeed, in the first few months they appeared to be on to something. With widespread compliance, clapping for the NHS, volunteering and neighbourhood support networks popping up, a communal spirit was clearly part of our collective response.

This started to unravel towards the summer with an increasing concern by some that not enough was being done to protect the vulnerable and by others that the response beyond the initial lockdown was disproportionate to the now-known risks. Most commentators point to acts of hypocrisy as driving this division. In the UK the actions of the government advisor Dominic Cummings showed there was one rule for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’. While in the US, the BLM protests showed that support for mass public gatherings during a pandemic might be tolerated if the cause was deemed important enough, for many, especially those who are not political progressives, it undermined the narrative that restrictive measures were being scientifically determined.

Beyond the ‘hypocrisy’ thesis, there are deeper drivers to this division. At the heart of the Covid crisis has been a clashing of two key values and competing social goods: ‘care for others’ and the ‘liberty of individuals’. Both are at the heart of Western Liberal Democracies and with lockdowns, curfews, checkpoints and now home raids the government response to the crisis has seen the suspension of the latter for sake of the former. It is in the tension between these values that shapes what’s known as ‘the culture war’ between authoritarian and libertarian values and so it is perhaps not that surprising (especially in a climate of fear) to see politicisation and polarization of the issues.

We need a majority consensus to democratically deliver a more sustainable future for all. To get there, we may well have to navigate the same tensions and clashes of values. And yet we must arrive at a sustainable future with both ‘care for others’ and ‘individual liberty’ firmly intact. We already know that reducing our emissions to zero by 2050 only gives us a 50/50 chance of staving off the worst consequences of climate change, we cannot risk polarizing the public to a 50/50 chance of supporting the changes needed to get us to that crucial coin toss.

Science isn’t static

2020 has also been a year that has seen the opinion of experts welcomed back to the public realm with our Prime Minister frequently addressing the nation flanked by eminent doctors and scientists. The core argument for action on climate change is founded on scientific knowledge and many in our space are speculating whether the focus on following and listening to the science/scientists during the pandemic bodes well for a more rational response to the urgency of climate change in the future.

However, something we’ve seen clearly this year is that in a crisis, science is not a static thing. Throughout the unfolding events of last year our understanding of the virus, who is vulnerable from it, how to treat it and how to stop its spread have continued to evolve as the data comes in. There were also parallel developments in the science of climate change with updated predictions revising their probability estimates for various degrees of warming. While their data shows that there is an even smaller chance that we will successfully limit warming to only 1.5 degrees, there also appears to be a significantly reduced probability of the worst case, runaway global warming that occurs over 3 degrees.

Clearly, the coronavirus crisis is a much faster moving challenge than global climate change and therefore significantly more difficult to navigate. Nonetheless, the science of climate change will continue to evolve over the years ahead. We will need to respond and it will not always be clear how. For example, a recent report suggests that achieving net zero may be enough to stabilize the climate without the need for further drawing down emissions which might mean radically changing the game plan for the second half of this century.

The next 10 years working in sustainability are likely to have many parallels with the first peak of the Coivd crisis. For example, there’s a relatively simple goal, “flatten the curve” and “bring emissions down by half”. But even as we succeed, we will also learn a great deal about the challenge we are facing, how the climate reacts to these reduced emissions, what technologies live up to their promises, which feedback loops we’ve underestimated, what we can expect from different nations and their cultural responses to crisis, and all this will be going on while our climate models continue to be refined. Towards the end of the decade we must be confident enough to pause and re-assess what’s needed next to best deliver our shared goal of a sustainable, fair and free world.

That’s it. Those are my 5 big learnings from the past 12 months. I’ve no doubt you’ve spotted other lessons that we can take away or have drawn different conclusions from the same events – I’d love to hear them so do comment and share!


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