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The sustainability agenda: Lessons learned from the Coronavirus

(This article is an edited and abridged version of Hans Lindeman’s DevoTalk on April 22. Go here to watch the entire keynote).

By Hans Lindeman, Senior Advisor, Devoteam

The Corona crisis affects the sustainability agenda in several ways, and this pandemic has demonstrated that we, as a global society, need to step up to make the world safer and more sustainable. We must strive towards an inherently resilient society built on collaboration and a stable technological base.

The Coronavirus constitutes possibly the most impactful global event of our generation with immense loss of life and treasure, and we still do not know the full impact of the pandemic.

And in the midst of this, the world continues to struggle with another global existential threat, a climate that appears out of control, a global habitat that is under relentless pressure, and untenable resource use. The virus affects us personally and privately in ways that sustainability mostly has not, but the sustainability agenda is equally urgent and we must not lose sight of that goal because we are dealing with this dangerous virus.

The question is, how will the Corona crisis impact the all-important work of becoming more sustainable in everything that we do? Is it all just getting worse, or is there a silver lining where we can actually improve our efforts to save our planet? What can we learn from the current crisis, about how we should run our societies and the role of technology?

These are the questions we will explore in this article based on our research.

Common factors: four areas impacting both the virus and sustainability

First, we must look at the common factors between the state of the earth and the Corona crisis. Our research has shown four main areas that have a significant impact on both sustainability and the virus:

 1) Continuing urbanization

One of the most prominent global sustainability challenges, whether we are talking about climate change, ocean acidification, inequality, or lack of resources, comes from the virtually exponential population growth we have seen in the last century. This increased urbanization has also had a significant impact on the spread of the Coronavirus, both in terms of number of cases and speed. The current level of population density is an almost perfect scene on which to spread the virus.

2) Increased demand for food

The rise in global population and thus growing demand for food has many negative impacts on the environment, including over-farming, consumption of energy, use of chemicals, etc. Our actions have significant ramifications in terms of biodiversity and natural habitats, driving animals closer and closer to humans, ultimately exacerbating the possibility for so-called zoonotic diseases. The most widely accepted theory about the origins of the pandemic is that the virus spread from animals to people through a large food market in China. These markets are very popular, but critically serve as an area for transmission of sickness from animals to humans.

3) Constant drive for growth and profit

The global economic situation today is dominated by a war on costs and an all-consuming drive for increased profits by the business community. This incessant drive for wealth and growth is a massive strain on the environment and the fight for equality. Unfortunately, this reality also supports the virus, which has thrived in a globally connected and growth-fixated world. Large industrial cities like Wuhan, where the virus is believed to originate, are the engines for the industrialized and globalized world and have also become hot spots for the global spread of the virus.

4) Destabilized global politics

Lately, we have witnessed a destabilization on the global political scene, increased levels of tension, and less international cooperation, often as a result of conservative leadership in some of the world’s largest countries. This development has dramatically impaired our ability to save the planet as vital agreements like the Paris accord have lost their impetus at the behest of perceived domestic demands. The deteriorating political climate has had an equally detrimental effect on our ability to influence and control the Coronavirus. The situation is evident on many levels, and between all countries, who are looking out for their own interests, while global organizations fighting on everyone’s behalf, are being actively impaired.

Thus, on a number of significant global issues, the need for a robust sustainability agenda is closely linked to the situation that has caused and exacerbated the global Corona crisis.

On top of that, the Coronavirus has had several direct negative and positive effects on the sustainability agenda, which will be outlined below.

Negative effects: Fewer resources and good deeds

  • Fewer resources: The heightened attention on healthcare and the economy has led to a de-prioritization of resources – medical, production, financial, etc. – that would otherwise have been used do drive sustainability.
  • More non-recyclable products: Due to the contagious nature of the virus, consumption of single-use plastics and non-recyclable products has shot through the roof.
  • Less recycling: Many municipalities and cities have stopped waste recycling programs and sorting due to the risk of spreading the virus.
  • Short cuts to growth: Because companies are desperate to get back on track financially, they will choose the most profitable, but less sustainable options. The same effect was seen after the financial crisis in 2008.
  • Weakened political collaboration: Sustainability is dependent on strong global cooperation, but during the Corona crisis, we have seen many examples of deep rifts in the relationship between countries.
  • More inequality: In many geographies, it is the poor, uneducated, and those in most need, who are the hardest hit by the pandemic. The poor have, in effect, become poorer, and indications are that it will take them longer to recover from the effects of the virus.

Positive effects: Conscience and collaboration

However, there are also some instances where fighting the Corona crisis and working on a more sustainable world go hand in hand.

  • Drop in pollution: The decrease in human activity has resulted in cleaner air and water, albeit only for the time being.
  • Uptake in remote services: The crisis has led to an increase in remote communication and healthcare. Post Corona, this acquired experience could make education and healthcare more accessible to those who are poor, less well off, or just difficult to reach.
  • Stronger scientific collaboration: Whereas many partnerships between countries have been disrupted, scientists have done the opposite. Some reports point to an entirely new level of cooperation in the global scientific community, which will also greatly benefit the sustainability agenda.
  • More conscious consumers: Indications show that consumer buying behavior and brand expectations will become more focused on matters of health and safety, including recycling principles and smart resource use.
  • Technology to the rescue: One of the overriding medical principles that the current virus crisis has exposed is the need for testing. This helps us understand levels of viral spread, and the data can be used to manage intervention, movement of medical equipment, and hospital capacity. Similarly, the use of technology to manage movement of people using IoT, image recognition, and AI can be critical to help beat the virus spreading. Understanding the importance of technology and data is equally important for the sustainability agenda. On a global scale, complexities in interrelationships of all physical aspects of our globe, cannot be controlled and impacted, let alone understood, if we are not adept at gathering and using data. We believe the Corona experience will have a significant impact on the use of digitalization and technology to enable and accelerate sustainability.

Conclusion: Many factors in play, technology perhaps the most important

The virus affects us personally and privately in ways that sustainability mostly has not, yet. But as outlined above, there are many similarities and correlations when dealing with such an existential threat. There are two overriding lessons to be learned.

  1. To beat a global challenge, we must act as one: The pandemic and our sustainability challenges share the characteristic that they are borderless and indifferent to skin color, religion, or background. Governmental efforts to treat them as such by conservative, isolationist, and uncooperative policies are not fruitful. Worldwide challenges must be fought on the global stage, through collaboration, sharing, by partnering, and through trust, both geopolitically and within international businesses. 
  2. Resilience through technology: A sustainable society is an inherently resilient society with a stable economy based on strong collaboration between private, public, and educational partners. A resilient society is also agile and able to change and to adapt. Fully embracing technology and digitalization will allow us to achieve these attributes. Technology helps us manage the intricacies of global processes and enables communications, collaboration, and visualization across distance and time. Data and AI are critical to understand the complex interrelationships of our planet and to digitize core systems along with reliable security solutions. Our prediction is that technology will be the foundation of what allows us to beat the pandemic, and it will be the foundation of what will enable us to continue our work with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Without resilience and a robust technology platform, we will fail; with the correct use and application of it, we stand a good chance of winning, and of making our planet a better place to live.

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