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 of saving our planet? What can we learn from the current crisis, about how we should run or societies and the role of technology?
These are the questions I will explore in this article based on my research.
Common factors: 4 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. My research has shown four main areas that have a significant impact on both sustainability and the virus:
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 I will outline below.
Negative effects: Fewer resources and good deeds
Fewer resources: The heightened attention on health care 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 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. I believe the Corona experience will have a significant impact on the use of digitalization and technology to enable and accelerate sustainability.
Conclusion: Without technology, we will fail
The virus affects us personally and privately in ways that sustainability mostly has not, yet. But as I have outlined above, there are many similarities and correlations when dealing with such an existential threat. To me, 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 likely to be particularly fruitful. Global challenges must be fought on the global arena, 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. My 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 without 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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