COVID-19’s Impact on the Future of Sustainability

April 22, 2020

By David Bloomgren, Public Affairs and Communications Strategist

Just a few weeks ago, I was preparing to recognize the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day by finalizing my presentation for my childrens’ homeroom classes on the benefits of 50 years of the United States Clean Air Act and its positive impacts on air quality and children’s health. My deck was complete, plans were made, children were excited and we were ready to go.

My project was a part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Alumni Association’s 50th Anniversary “Teach in Program.” I have served at the EPA twice. First as the communications director for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. During the second stint, I was focusing on climate protection programs for the Obama Administration.

Boy, times have changed. And despite COVID-19, life goes on. So, what happens when we ease back into a sense of normalcy again? Will global governments loosen climate change and clean air, water and land mandates? Will the private sector stop focusing on the triple bottom line and solely focus on shareholder profits? We’re driving less now, but will we double down on emissions once we are out of quarantine? And what about those plastic bags?

So, on this Earth Day, while I may not be sharing my experience with children under the age of 10, I hope I can share my experience with all of you. Here are a few of my predictions on COVID-19’s impact on sustainability and how companies can focus their efforts.

Investment Community Doubles Down on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria

More than any other event in our lifetime, COVID-19 has placed a greater emphasis on public health, the environment in which we live and how interconnected our lives are. When we emerge from this crisis, will we be more aware of our surroundings? The companies we work for or do business with? If you listen to experts in sustainable finance, the answer is yes.

  • “Wealthy investors in Asia are showing more interest in sustainable investments as the coronavirus pandemic focuses more attention on health and the environment, according to UBS Group AG.” – Bloomberg
  • “The coronavirus pandemic will put more companies under scrutiny for decisions that impact employees, customers and society.” – Morgan Stanley
  • “We have long argued that companies don’t operate in a vacuum,” said Andrew Howard, head of sustainable research at U.K. asset manager Schroders PLC. “Their success reflects their ability to adapt to challenges and trends in the societies to which they belong. That is more true now than ever; social and environmental challenges, and investment drivers, are increasingly overlapping.” – Wall Street Journal

Lesson for Companies: If the experts are right, we will see sustainability and CSR initiatives accelerate tremendously over the next several years as we understand just how interconnected we are and the importance of addressing ESG in building resiliency and avoiding a climate crisis.

This means we need to be ultra-focused on where the ESG community is moving and follow investor activity to ensure we are not only responsive, but in sync with the needs of all of our shareholders.

Global Governments Amplify Calls for a “Green Recovery”

On April 14, an alliance of 79 members of the European Union parliament, CEOs from 37 companies and dozens of researchers and NGOs issued a call-to-action for a COVID-19 economic recovery package that will speed the delivery of climate-neutral economy, protect biodiversity, build more resilient societies and ‘rapidly deliver jobs, growth and improve the way of life of all citizens worldwide.’

Notably, the call-to-action focused on how technologies that some may have considered to be revenue intensive just ten years ago, such as zero-emission vehicles or renewables, are now available at scale. This comes on the heels of the European Green Deal and new United Nations-sponsored climate rules for the airline industry.

While the next UN Climate Change Conference may be postponed until 2021, global governments are not going to slow down sustainability measures any time soon. In fact, with a few notable exceptions, it is expected that governments, working closely with NGOs and the private sector, will ramp up efforts to ensure that domestic and COVID-19 recovery policies are in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Lesson for Companies: Now more than ever, Chief Sustainability Officers and sustainability leaders can play an active role in framing the environmental policies of the future. Not through lobbying, but through engaged thought leadership and a willingness to serve as a partner to governments for forward-thinking solutions.

NGOs Ramp Up Engagement

From driving the first Earth Day and advocating for the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to unpacking the global plastic crisis and climate challenge, NGOs have always been the tip of the spear when it comes to sustainability and environmental change.

This continues to be true in the age of coronavirus. Understanding how NGOs are tackling COVID-19 can lend insight into how to address the challenges of tomorrow. For example:

  • “As Congress works to revitalize the American economy with additional stimulus legislation, it is essential that those federal investments support the public interest in the broadest terms and drive innovations that better position our nation to address the full range of challenges we face. This includes upholding existing protections for public health and the environment, and investing in an economic rebound that is more sustainable, more resilient, more equitable, and driven by clean energy.” – WWF
  • “There is a more fundamental connection between air pollution, coronavirus and health, however, and like most things about the virus, this connection is worrisome.” – Environmental Defense Fund
  • “For example, hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent in the coming months to reflate declining economies. These investments could simply restore the high carbon and unequal economies of today. Or they could help drive low carbon development and protect against the threats that already exist.” World Resources Institute

While some may believe that NGOs are taking a pause during this difficult time, nothing could be further from the truth. Plans for tackling climate change are accelerating, plastic initiatives continue and links between viruses like COVID-19 and the environment being investigated.

Lesson for Companies: Corporations should continue to work with NGOs and help frame these issues so that we can rebound from COVID-19 faster and find solutions to pressing sustainability issues such as plastic waste or climate change.

The coming months will be telling as we move into recovery mode and try to find normalcy in our lives. Some believe that sustainability will take a back seat to more pressing matters, such as economic recovery. But as we’ve seen, sustainability and economic recovery need to go hand-in-hand as we enter a new, post-COVID era.

* If you have questions or are seeking counsel, please reach out to David at dbloomgren@golin.com