ReUnited Kingdoms #2: Rebuilding a greener society

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15 April 2020

ReUnited Kingdoms – a new conversation about the future

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has caused devastation to brands, communities, families and businesses. However, as life under lockdown becomes the Temporary Normal, businesses are starting to imagine what the world should look like “afterwards” and ask how we can build on new behaviours and start to build things through a new lens. Here lies the thinking behind our “ReUnited Kingdoms” content series, in which we’ll explore various aspects of life beyond lockdown, looking particularly at how we can all play our part in creating the future. In this piece, we’ll focus on the need to reignite the passion that and energy that was being created around the sustainability movement.

Then: A message whose time had come

2019 was widely regarded as the moment when the sustainability discussion reached a tipping point. The boisterous, attention-grabbing and sometimes controversial activities of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion brought the issue of climate change to a level of public attention that hadn’t been seen in decades, if ever. The seemingly endless procession of climate-related natural disasters such as bush fires,  tropical storms of unparalleled ferocity, flooding, droughts and  polar vortices prompted the Guardian to label it as Year Zero of the climate apocalypse (link). With the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26) scheduled to be held in Glasgow under the presidency of the UK government in November 2020, the stage was surely set for international agreement and some genuine progress towards reducing emissions.

Now: Overtaken by events

Of course, as we now know, another threat was to emerge to take centre stage and divert the attention of governments, lobby groups and citizens onto a more immediately pressing concern. At the time of writing, we’ve seen approaching 2 million or so Covid-19 cases and approximately 120,000 deaths (link) across over 200 countries (link). Over one-third of the world’s population is on some form of restriction or lockdown (link).

According to the World Economic Forum and JP Morgan, Covid-19 will have forced the world economy into a 12% contraction for Q1 (Jan-Mar 2020), with relief still some way off (link).  Some (such as the Pope) have even suggested that the outbreak is one of “nature’s responses” to humans ignoring the current ecological crisis by slowing down consumerism.

Covid-19 may be (temporarily) helping the planet

By staying at home we’re consuming less. Fewer flights, fewer meals out, fewer purchases. The net result is less of a drain on global resources, fewer warming emissions and less pollution (link).

And we’re starting to see the environmental payoff, at least in terms of short-term, localised improvements in measures such as water quality in global cities like Venice and reduced air pollution in global cities like London, Delhi, Beirut and others. Indeed, data from the Sentinel-5P satellite shows that nitrogen dioxide air pollution levels have plummeted across Europe since the pandemic (link). With air pollution responsible for an estimated 9 million global deaths each year, the reduction in harmful particulates as a result of the slowdown, some models have even suggested that the net mortality outcome of Covid may be positive with fewer dying from the virus than are saved by reduced air pollution (link).

We’ve also seen a resurgence of nature in some places: Boars roaming the streets of cities in northern Italy; Deer on East London council estates; and goats taking over the centre of Llandudno (link)? For some it seems as if nature had been waiting its moment to reclaim what it had lost to man.

But, Covid-19 is also simultaneously harming the planet

The environmental balance sheet for Covid-19 isn’t entirely positive, however. The increased incidence of online shopping and home delivery is having a net negative effect, with increased miles for delivery drivers and a projected global shortage of  packaging materials (link and link) and a massive increase in the amounts of medical waste.

Similarly, levels of recycling are falling as governments seek to reduce the risks associated with their programmes, or simply no longer have the staff to maintain them. In the same way that some argue that the changes in behaviour that are beneficial to the planet will be maintained after lockdown, so too may some of these less helpful changes be.

In parts of the world most directly affected by climate change (e.g. by rising water levels) the outbreak is having a double effect. Not only are people directly affected by it, but the lockdowns are also reducing the ability of local governments and populations to respond to climate-related threats and issues (link).

And, in truth, these effects will likely be short-term

It is true that, in the short term, global emissions are falling. We saw the same during steep economic declines in the past. But that same evidence suggests that emissions will bounce back as soon as economies do. Apparently they are already nearly within normal ranges in China again, as it emerges from lockdown (link).

So, unless, the changes we’ve seen during lockdown persist after lockdown, the threat of rapidly accelerating climate change will remain.

Ensuring the recovery doesn’t come at too great a price

The key question, of course, is whether these changes to the net environmental equation, both beneficial and detrimental, will continue beyond the current outbreak. The signs are not good, from the perspectives of government, business and consumer.

As soon as the government gets the infection graph moving in the right direction and we are allowed out of lockdown, its likely priorities will be ensuring readiness for a possible second spike in infections in the autumn/winter and trying to kickstart the stalled economy. The latter will also, understandably, be the key focus of business, looking to resume “business as usual”, fill in all those red entries on the annual accounts, rehire workers currently on furlough and start making money again.

Consumers too won’t be paying too much heed to the environment. Coming out of lockdown, the safest prediction is that they’ll be looking to make up for lost time, finances permitting: Taking the holidays and flights they believe they’ve been denied; thronging to the pubs and restaurants they so love; and, getting back out there for a bit of long overdue retail therapy.

Commentators such as Mark Ritson have spoken about this. His term “false pneuma” refers to the current vogue of suggesting that “the world will never be the same again” after coronavirus and the falseness lies in the true persistence of underlying human needs. In all likelihood, he and others believe that we’ll be back to normal (at least in terms of aspiration) all too soon, though we are more than likely heading straight into a serious and long-lasting recession.

In short, this means that the environment won’t benefit from the reduced consumption patterns we are seeing now. Not only will they likely not persist for long, but the environmental movement will suffer greatly from having been removed from our screens and front pages for the best part of a year. All the progress they made during 2019 will, likely, have to be remade in 2021, at the very time when we most needed to make significant legislative and behavioural progess.

“When the pandemic wanes, a poorer, more divided world will still face the

rapidly rising threat of global warming.” James Temple (link)

Economic rescue plans must be green

It may unrealistic to expect demob-happy (link) consumers fresh out of a restrictive lockdown to exercise restraint in the name of the environment, at least in the short-term.  Once their thirst for travel, stuff and experiences has been slaked a little, they may be a little more receptive, so it may be that the environmental lobby and brands looking to highlight their green credentials may be better advised to save their messaging for a while.

However, not so governments. Surely, this is exactly the right time to pressuring them to extract genuine environmental commitments from industry, particularly those such as aviation and cruise likely to be seeking bailouts (link).

For many, there are real parallels between the current Covid challenge and the climate crisis. Both are serious global problems where “the effectiveness of any one government’s action is limited if there are weak links in the global effort” (link). More than that, those leading efforts to address each challenge can learn from their counterparts. For example, dealing with the pandemic demonstrates that partisan politics needs to be brushed aside to deal with it and that we need to act immediately to reduce longer term and more severe impact (link).

What next?

As the story of the coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold, we’ve detected a change in mood and emphasis. Yes, people are still very concerned about the impact of Covid-19, both to the potential health of themselves, their loved ones and to society at large, and the longer-term economic impacts. But, as we acclimatise to lockdown, individuals and corporations are starting to ask, “what happens next?”. We believe the opportunity exists to reclaim and rebuild a better post-Covid future and we’ll be exploring further opportunities to do so in the next few weeks.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group.

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