COVID19 has swept across borders and caused panic among populations and governments. As individuals, cities and industries grapple with the issue, a number of areas relating to sustainability have come into the spotlight. Indeed, our reaction to the global crisis is likely to have long-term implications for the way society operates.
Below we set out four indirect consequences of the virus for the sustainability agenda which could have a lasting impact.
- We don’t need to be flying for work
Whilst most companies are cancelling meetings, putting up travel restrictions and ordering self-isolation for holiday goers, there are a few that are winning more business than ever. Start-ups Hopin and Run The World have seen a big increase in demand for their products in the last few weeks – online event hosting platforms. Although Facebook and Google have both scrapped two of the largest tech conferences of the year, Microsoft has decided to run their global summit completely digitally.
The obvious consequence of thousands of conferences and mass gathering events being cancelled is the reduction in travel, flights and emissions. This has clear environmental benefits, but these are short term. The most valuable outcome is the potential for conferencing virtually and the technology that is now being accelerated to facilitate this new way of information sharing globally. If we can attend online, why travel for work at all?
- When the economy slows, so does pollution
One of the most illuminating pictures to come out of the coronavirus media storm has been the Nasa satellite image showing the dramatic decline in China’s nitrogen dioxide pollution from January to February of this year which scientists believe is partly related to the economic slowdown. A study has also predicted that carbon emissions in China, the world’s largest contributor to climate change, were down by 25% over February.
There is no doubt that this effect is temporary and the moment this is all over, manufacturing will be working double time to make up for the losses. However, it is interesting to see how the pollution tap can simply be turned off, and how quickly the negative impacts are reduced.
- The future of flexible working is now
Although flexible working has been on the rise over the last decade, there is currently a surge in companies adopting new policies and testing new forms of communication either to limit the spread of the virus, or in preparation for large numbers of workers needing to work from home.
These adaptations could allow for a shift in the culture of office work – one that leans towards workers wellbeing – especially in countries where flexible working is not the norm. For example, in Asia-Pacific, this change in working cultures will be felt as even more radical. If these new policies prove to be productive, they might be here to stay.
- For gig economy workers, it’s same situation, now critical
The problems faced by workers of the so called ‘gig economy’ have been debated for a while now. In terms of government policy and changes made by the companies employing these freelance and contract workers, such as Uber and Deliveroo, progress has been snails-paced. However, the COVID-19 crisis has brought these questions once again to the fore front and decisions are now critical.
While the risk of government imposed self-isolation hangs over many nations, gig economy workers are faced with the possibility of being cut off from their livelihoods – many of which require face-to-face contact in the service industry. Further, as these workers are not technically considered employees by the companies they work for, they often aren’t entitled to get sick pay. If the decision is made that populations must self-isolate, gig economy workers have no incentive to stay home – even if they become ill. Ironically, as home deliveries are expected to double if a social-distancing strategy comes into play and many of us work from home, it is these gig economy delivery workers that we will be relying on.
From immediate policy changes to whole company culture shifts, global collaboration can and has happened. Afterall, there is nothing like sudden workforce and supply chain vulnerability to fast track sustainability solutions we should really have been doing already. But if individuals and the environment benefit from economic slowdown, do we need to rethink our consumerist model? And what will it take for the next sustainability shift to take place? While these effects may be temporary, they have ignited substantial change in organisations and governments around the world. What this shows us is that change can come quickly, but only if they really want it to.
The question is, when this all blows over, can we justify going back to business as usual?