It’s no secret that society is currently straining under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time where many already felt beleaguered by burgeoning political, environmental, and social problems, we now find ourselves faced with an actual plague. While the implications for human health are clear and immediate, the swift closure of virtually all public life, and the switch (for many) to working from home has important environmental implications as well. Green publications such as Grist.org point out that the high amounts of people being relegated indoors means we’ll make serious emissions cuts, but warn that after the pandemic, if policies aren’t in place to protect those emissions cuts, the rush to return to “normalcy” could make those savings obsolete.
The E: Environment
At CodeGreen we believe that environmental policies and programs are best when created with intention. Authors such as Ed Young in an article for The Atlantic postulate that periodic social distancing will likely be a part of our lives in the years moving forward. If we don’t take this space to think about what aspects of quarantined life we might want to carry into our continued efforts against climate change, we are not honoring the vulnerable members of our community who are most at risk for COVID-19 complications, and who are also most vulnerable to the environmental justice impacts of increased air pollution and rising temperatures as a result of climate change.
The COVID-19 pandemic, when viewed through a socio-environmental lens offers a few unique perspectives and illuminates potential pathways we might follow when emerging from this. Firstly: we have the capacity to allow more people to work from home, and doing so would contribute to significant emissions cuts in the transportation sector; secondly, while interconnectedness and globalization are fixtures of the modern world, local community engagement is an important facet of corporate social responsibility, and can potentially leverage the creation of more local supply chains with smaller carbon footprints. Finally-innovation can happen quickly in the private sector, and innovation is in fact what we need to leverage to fight against climate change.
Whether or not companies had the infrastructure for employees to work remotely before COVID-19, if they’re still in business, it’s likely because they made a fast switch. This step towards greater flexibility in the workplace also has important environmental implications. In a 2017 report, the EPA calculated that the transportation sector was by far the biggest GHG emitter, contributing up to 29% of GHG emissions that year. More telling, is that light duty vehicles (what you or I might drive to work) were responsible for 59% of emissions within the transportation sector.
This pandemic shows us that corporations do have the capacity to permit, or even encourage workers to telecommute, thus saving emissions and increasing online interconnectivity. While the current condition of increased virtual communication was born of necessity, the decision to make virtual work a more common flex option for full-time employees would have a positive impact on our emissions reductions efforts as a nation. In fact, according to globalworkplaceanalytics.com “If those in the US with a work from home compatible job and a desire to work remotely did so just half the time, the GHG reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce off the road.”
The S: Social
The coronavirus crisis has resulted in retail giants with global supply chains beginning to address the needs and wellbeing of the communities within which they operate to provide resources, expertise, and support. Just Capital’s corporate response tracker keeps tabs on the community efforts of retail giants such as Wal-Mart, and Kroger. These globalized companies are providing community relief funds, adjusted hours of operation, paid sick leave, and other considerations to alleviate the burdens on their workforce during this difficult time. In the real estate sector, property managers are increasingly tasked with keeping tenants safe and healthy, and fostering a sense of community. This ethos, one in which corporate entities take responsibility in the communities they occupy, is something that could and should become part of the fabric of corporate culture moving forward.
While it’s hard to measure wellbeing, there’s a reason local consumption has been a tenet of eco-consciousness for so long: the impacts and emissions generated along the supply chain are significant, and underrepresented. While shifting to an entirely local economy is unfeasible and at this point, unappealing, corporations can take the goodwill generated by their community engagement efforts as a result of this pandemic, and use it to make more of their supply chain local as well. This shift seems impossible now and yet, months ago-so did the current situation. Which brings us to our final point.
The G: Governance
Of the lessons learned from this terrifying and unexpected pandemic is perhaps the one most meaningful to our climate future: despite continued foot-dragging on the part of some of our elected leaders, innovation can happen quickly-at least, in the private sector. While the planet’s nations moved to address the burgeoning crisis, privately owned businesses and large corporations driven by the three pillars of people, planet, and profit quickly rose to the challenge.
Tesla and Apple among other companies began manufacturing ventilators. Retail giants closed stores to promote social distancing, and property managers in New York City quickly became the gatekeepers between their tenants and an invisible scourge. In the absence of clear Federal guidance, companies made swift and effective leadership decisions that are already showing they are effective in flattening the curve. COVID shows us just how quickly society can move to address a crisis, and we can and must do the same thing to address the climate crisis.
While sustainability has been firmly planted in our collective consciousness, the COVID-19 crisis reminds us that sustainability on its own isn’t enough: to address a wicked problem, like a pandemic or climate change, we need more than one solution. Each pathway discussed: flexible work options, corporate community engagement, and private sector innovation is valuable on its own, but together they have a stronger impact. While to speak of a silver lining to this crisis would be irresponsible, we at CodeGreen plan to take the lessons we’ve learned from this challenge and put them to work during the next.