Article: Sustainability and COVID-19

Green Recovery?

A general view of freeways leading into downtown Los Angeles after California issued a stay-at-home order due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 23, 2020.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Jul. 8, 2020

Can the post-COVID-19 economic recovery take a more sustainable form?


An unexpected upside

A sharp drop in the level of environmental pollutants was an unexpected consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, largely thanks to decreased levels of traffic congestion in major cities after widespread lockdowns.

At some point in May 2020, up to one-third the world's population was under some sort of lockdown or curfew, making the iconic streets of many bustling metropolises uncharacteristically secluded.

At the same time, the fleets of many airlines have been practically grounded for weeks now, drastically decreasing the level of typical emissions from aviation, such as carbon dioxide.

Many factories whose output was not deemed essential were shut down temporarily, leading to improved air quality. This was most noticeable in industrial cities of China, where air pollution dropped by as much as 25% in May.

Even Milan, the industrial powerhouse of Italy, experienced some fresh air for a time.

This has prompted the city's officials to seriously think about limiting the use of personal cars even with the lockdown fully lifted as a way of preempting a return of air pollution, according to The Guardian.

Will things change forever?

But, can a glimpse of a less bustling world encourage us to change our lifestyle permanently? Some are wondering if this accidental experiment will encourage us to adopt a greener lifestyle, but the answer is not so clear.

First of all, some claim that the clarity of air is not a reliable indicator of pollution. “The air is clearer. But the pollution declines aren't nearly as large as early indications suggested, according to an NPR analysis of six years of Environmental Protection Agency data," noted an article by NPR staff from May 2020.

Ostensibly, only having fewer cars on the streets and fewer airplanes flying in the sky is not enough to rid us of environmental pollution. The manufacturing industry, buses and trucks, and industrial livestock farming are all greater contributors to air pollution than city cars.

To have a greener economy in the post-coronavirus world, we need to completely rethink our manufacturing methods, work culture, lifestyle, and the supply chains of goods to end customers.

In any case, getting a taste of cleaner air for a few weeks—albeit as a result of a tragic pandemic—may be a good start, even if invisible pollutants such as ozone will take a much longer time to go away.

As it happens, COVID-19 has also changed the way we think about work. As a result of lockdowns in Europe, the US, the Middle East, and East Asia, many professionals were forced to telecommute for weeks.

Teleworking

And quite surprisingly, telecommuting did not affect the productivity of personnel in many companies, prompting many employers to continue distance-working even after the lockdowns. The US tech giant, Facebook, was one of the first companies to embrace the remote work culture.

The company “expects half of employees to work remotely over next five to 10 years," according to The Guardian.

A partial shift to working from home, at least for some professions, can be a step toward a greener economy, although teleworking is not without its downsides. Disconnection from the company culture, fewer opportunities for teamwork, and difficulty in professional networking are among the downsides of telecommuting.

After all, bustling city centers of the world's great metropolises are where innovation and business ideas thrive, where partnerships are formed, and where aspiring executives and businesspeople learn the tricks of their trade.

The complete death of business hearts of cities in favor of teleworking may end up doing more harm to our world than good. But, a healthy balance between distance-working and in-person involvement can be ideal both for the business ecosystem and the real one.

Improved delivery networks

The COVID-19 crisis wreaked havoc on many business sectors across the world, but online retailing was not one of them.

Once the lockdowns were announced first in Italy and Spain and later in many US states, people rushed to their laptops and smartphones to do their shopping.

And, as it will be explained later, online retail may turn out to be a greener option than in-person shopping in many cases.

In March 2020, Amazon, the world's leading online retailer, faced an explosion in the number of orders, which caused serious inventory issues for the company, prolonging the usual delivery time. AmazonFresh, a service which offers free delivery of groceries to the company's Prime customers in under an hour, was particularly overburdened.

Smaller online retailers have also fared well. Online retailers in the US had year-on-year revenue increases of 49% in January and 68% in mid-April. “There's been a 129% year-over-year growth in US & Canadian e-commerce orders as of April 21 and an impressive 146% growth in all online retail orders," according to Forbes.

In response to such a surge in demand, online retailers are perfecting their delivery networks to deliver a commodity from its place of origin to the end user in the most efficient manner.

Although online retailers are optimizing their delivery networks for the sake of their own profit margins, the shift to online shopping by millions of citizens is by its nature eco-friendly. A highly optimized delivery network consumes much smaller carbon footprint than millions of citizens who drive their private vehicles for grocery shopping each day.

A wake-up call

In addition to points discussed above, which are all unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, many voices are now hinting that the current situation should be regarded as a wake-up call for humanity to reconsider the sustainability of our practices.

Since WWII no disruptor had affected our lifestyle as much as COVID-19, giving us an illusion that our way of life can go on forever.

Now that illusion of invincibility is shattered. If a mutated virus had the power to bring the global economy to a standstill for weeks, large ecological and climatic changes can do worse.

This crisis has reminded many decision makers that a true recover of the world economy must be green, sustainable, and robust in the face of similar disruptors in the future.

ADVERTISEMENT