Climate change: The unintended benefit of coronavirus

The global lockdown has an environmental upside, and we would be fools to squander it.

by Rita Clifton
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2020

When British Airways recently committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, it certainly didn’t have slashing 75 per cent of its capacity in mind as a way of achieving it.

While COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on the human race, the environment is thriving.

The canals in Venice have never been clearer. In China, satellite images from NASA and the European Space Agency have shown a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide pollution after much of the country went into lockdown. A similar effect has been seen in northern Italy. Across the Atlantic in New York, scientists at Columbia University reported a 5-10 per cent drop in CO2 emissions in mid-March as traffic levels fell 35 per cent in the city.

This respite for the environment is obviously not going to last, and people need livelihoods. Factories will power back up. As we emerge out of lockdown, planes will take to the air, boats to the water and cars to the road again. But we've glimpsed what's possible with global awareness of a problem, shared international commitment and local, community action – and this crisis could provide an opportunity for businesses to ramp up their promised environmental reforms. 

Just a few months ago, Delta announced an ambitious plan to become the first US airline to go carbon neutral, committing $1bn over the next 10 years to mitigate all emissions from its global business.

By 2050, Microsoft has pledged to remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975. This, added to its planet-lite cloud-services model, might help it turn the tables back on Apple.

Formula One has also started polishing up its green credentials. F1 is a heavy carbon producer, amounting to around 256,000 tonnes of carbon per season, which equates to the annual emissions of around 30,000 UK householders. It has promised to make all its events "sustainable" by 2025, including eliminating single-use plastics and ensuring all waste is reused, recycled or composted, and to become carbon neutral by 2030. 

The Society for Human Resource Management found companies with sustainability programmes report 55 per cent better employee morale, 43 per cent more efficient business processes and 38 per cent improved employee loyalty. Happier people and happier customers mean a more effective and efficient business. We will be fighting a new war for talent, and dirty, uncaring business will struggle.

When the world starts to go back to business, the other massive threat – global climate change – will still be facing us. Businesses have learned that they can change their behaviour (fast) and they can help save the planet. They must use their global reach to agree action. If we can learn lessons from this period of revolutionary change, generations to come will thank us.

Rita Clifton CBE is a portfolio chair, non-executive director and brand specialist. 

Image credit: DKAR Images via Getty Images

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