Earth Day 2020 – a moment to pair climate action with our COVID recovery

Published: 22 Apr 2020
Author: María Mendiluce
Type: Insight

Today’s 50th Earth Day has given us a lot to think about. Commemorating this landmark day -- 50 years since the first Earth Day brought 20 million people to the streets in the US to demand environmental protections; and the four year anniversary of countries’ signing the Paris Agreement – most of us feel very far from that world.

​Grounding planes, shuttering businesses and plunging demand for oil, the pandemic has brought our systems to a standstill. We’ve seen that we have to make enormous transformations to the way we operate as societies to save lives. And in this case, we were woefully unprepared.

We need to understand and act on the fact that sustainability, biodiversity loss, climate change, inequality, health, and big shocks to the system that are happening today are all interlinked.

The pandemic has been unrelenting: the death count keeps increasing, and now more than two million people have been infected. Millions more are unemployed amid a rapidly growing recession. At the same time, governments’ essential measures to prevent the pandemic spreading such as business closures, travel bans and social distancing have further shown our lack of resilience and how interrelated these crises are in their threats to our essential food, health and welfare systems.

As governments and businesses around the world make decisions to design our recovery it’s clear that returning to business-as-usual is not enough; we need a recovery that builds resilience. It is a once in a lifetime moment for the world to reset and make things right.

We need a holistic approach to our recovery

The pandemic has shown the exponential nature of systemic risks. Building back cannot happen in a vacuum through isolated actions. Times like these demand collective leadership and action, at a time where our commitment to stakeholder capitalism is being put to the test. Collective leadership is crucial. It is more important than ever for business to lead by focusing on two things: ​short-term recovery plans, as well as the future resilience of our systems.

We also need to take a holistic approach to stimulus packages addressing and linking health, climate, nature and equality. The climate and nature crises are tightly connected to inequality; conflict, poverty; and public health threats, which in turn undermine people’s resilience to survive climate shocks.

We need bold leadership from business and governments

It is a pivotal moment for every company to demonstrate ​responsibility towards society. The initial priority needs to be ensuring the safety and health of people, as well as getting those who lost their jobs back into the economy.​

The economic outlook is uncertain. Yet companies that take sustainability seriously fare better in times of shocks. Environmental and social risks, which sustainability is trying to address, need to be integrated into decision making by companies, governments and capital markets.

As governments around the world mobilize economic stimulus packages to help our businesses and communities recover from more damage, it’s critical that they adopt the bold leadership shown in their emergency responses to the pandemic to rebuilding our recovery. Decisions to implement these packages will be the biggest government spending the world has and will see for decades, with enormous and long-lasting impacts on the future of companies and economies. Governments working on plans to rebuild their economies should pair recovery action with climate action. Clear and consistent government policies that drive full decarbonization across the economy are essential to achieving a zero-carbon future.

Tackling COVID-19 while ignoring climate science is not an option

2020 will be known as the year of the pandemic but for many, it has already been a year of devastating, climate disasters including forest fires, heatwaves and floods, which have weakened people’s resilience to social and economic shocks and delivered a solemn warning that we are deeply unprepared for the impacts of a warmer world. The science is clear: climate change is still the biggest threat to our lives, economy and systems.

The pandemic’s emergence does not reduce our level of risk to climate change but for many makes it worse.

Climate action is an opportunity to build back better

In addition to the inevitable and urgent need to invest in our health systems and in research and innovation, we need to remind ourselves that prevention is always the best health measure. We should prepare the world to be resilient to future shocks and prevent ourselves from surpassing the planetary boundaries of our earth system.

While G20 governments will spend more than USD $5 trillion in stimulus packages, there are clear signals that the majority of people do not want to go back to business as usual as it was pre-COVID. This crisis offers a glimpse of what the “new normal” could be like, with less air pollution or traffic and people working from home more.

We must build back better and smarter. Longer-term stimulus measures to tackle the economic crisis need to be invested in people, low-carbon solutions and nature to avoid a more profound crisis. Investing in low-carbon solutions will offer employment opportunities, for instance when retrofitting buildings or creating renewable energy technologies and infrastructure. Any investment must help people to build resilience.

It’s not just about spending. We also need policymakers to put in place policies in line with net-zero carbon commitments and ensuring decent jobs.

Building resilience in our systems isn’t just down to governments. We are seeing companies showing unprecedented leadership to address short term emergency responses -- protecting their employees’ health and safety and ensuring vital supplies get to where they’re needed – while doubling down their investment and commitment to a net-zero emission world. But we need more. We need companies to set and implement net-zero, climate targets: the only preventive action to ensure a climate, health and economically resilient future.

In this moment of truth leadership, we call on companies to:

  • Integrate risk into company disclosures in line with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, so that risk can be understood and integrated into companies’ governance and the value of capital markets
  • Invest in low-carbon solutions, especially those which create jobs, while ensuring a just-transition for employees and suppliers
  • Put climate action at the heart of business strategy: set science-based targets and develop robust, net-zero strategies to achieve 1.5°C before 2050. WBCSD’s new SOS 1.5 project helps businesses to design and implement their own journeys to net-zero.

As the world fights back against COVID-19, Earth Day 2020 reminds us what’s at stake. We must invest in a holistic recovery that builds true resilience.

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