One of the worst health crises in modern-day history, COVID-19 has a total of 1.5M cases and over 91K deaths across the world. But there is no doubt that COVID-19 has become so much more than just a pandemic. COVID-19 became a political issue when disagreements arose over when, what kind, and how large of a Stimulus Package to pass. COVID-19 became an economic issue when the stock market saw its largest quarterly loss since 2008. And COVID-19 became a human issue when 10 million Americans found themselves without employment. COVID-19 will have long-lasting effects for years to come. There is, also, one other long-term implication that missed public alarm: sustainability.

Scientists have almost unanimously agreed on the threat of climate change since the early 2010s. It has been called humanity’s greatest existential crisis. And yet, because the effects manifest over such a long timescale, it is a topic that nations, leaders, and people cannot always agree on. Despite this, progress occurred slowly over the last decade:

  • Increased attention on and investment in renewables
  • Decreased use of plastics and single-use items
  • Increased education on recycling and composting
  • The rise of sustainable architecture
  • The creation of watchdog organizations and accountability metrics

Before discussing how COVID-19 will affect sustainability, it is important to remember how and why climate change is happening. The main driver of global warming is grounded in the Greenhouse Effect. When certain gasses – mainly carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, and methane – are emitted into the atmosphere, they trap heat between the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth, similar to how a greenhouse traps the sun’s heat. How do the gasses get in the atmosphere? These common greenhouse gasses are generally produced whenever organic matter decays or is burned. So the largest impetus behind the rise of greenhouse gas emissions is energy. Fossil fuels (in the form of oil, coal, and natural gas) that have been burned to power this world since the late 19th century are created deep in the ground from the breakdown of ancient organic compounds. Transportation, shipping, freight, manufacturing, agriculture, and other energy-dependent industries have played a major role in making the world more livable. But rapid population growth and its consequent increased use of these industries have slowly started changing a world that has been home to humans for centuries.

So with the majority of the world under lockdown, shouldn’t COVID-19 have positive effects on climate change? In the short-run, absolutely. The indications have been clear. Canal waters in Venice are much clearer. Smog and smoke over parts of China have been reduced with the shutdown of factories. Air quality in major American cities has improved almost as much as 40% in places like New York City and San Francisco. Preliminary estimates from scientists suggest that carbon emissions could drop as much as 5% in just 2020. This type of decrease has not been seen since the WW2 era after the war ended.

But these changes are by no means sustainable. Climate change cannot be fought with a running assumption of millions out of work and whole industries no longer operating. Without meaningful structural change, this dip in emissions will be short-lived and non-impactful. As COVID-19 rages on, there are serious questions regarding the form of those structural changes.

Major disease outbreaks have always resulted in major city changes. The Athens plague in 430 BC resulted in much stricter enforcement of city laws. The London cholera outbreaks in the 1850s gave rise to modern-day sewage systems. And the Ebola outbreak a few years ago displayed how the delivery of healthcare in rural areas is necessary to protect against rapid disease outbreak in Africa. With social distancing and citywide lockdowns playing a major role in COVID-19, there is speculation future city development will be much more spread out – a stark contrast to the dense urban environments of cities today. While this may sound appealing, wider and less-dense cities take up significantly more land and natural resources while being significantly less energy efficient. As cities re-evaluate their risks and challenges during a quarantine, they can follow the example of Ann Arbor, MI. Ann Arbor city officials have fast-tracked a plan called A2Zero with six core principles:

  1. Powering the electric grid with renewables
  2. Electrifying appliances and vehicles
  3. Improving buildings’ energy efficiency
  4. Reducing miles traveled in personal vehicles
  5. Changing waste disposal and reuse methods
  6. Enhancing resilience

The city remains proactive in protective measures because it recognizes that pandemics, crises, and natural disasters will only continue. This plan is a major step in the right direction in planning for a secure, safe, resilient, and sustainable future for the city and its people.

As for transportation, COVID-19 has shown that traditional communication requirements like in-person interactions and cross-national flights can now be done via videoconferencing technology and remote work. While it is not realistic to assume transportation will stay at its current lockdown-levels, the hope is that society becomes more stringent in defining what travel is truly necessary. Traditional business norms like cross-country flights for one-night business deals should be reconsidered. Managing or outsourcing whole vehicle fleets for employee commute benefits should be reassessed with electric vehicles (EVs) or other more energy-efficient options. Supply chain logistics should be redeveloped around sustainability and cleaner transportation. Global supply chains that exist today were developed over the last 20-30 years with a focus on rapid delivery and low inventory, otherwise known as “just-in-time” supply chains. With COVID-19 shuttering operational hubs across the world, companies, as well as customers, are realizing the pain of “just-in-time” supply chains. Moving forward, there will be a movement towards decentralization, with global supply chains executed on local levels. In creating more resilient supply chains, this shift also creates opportunities to develop sustainable fulfillment centers, warehouses, and inventory storage, as well as EV-powered last-mile delivery.

The role of plastics in a post-COVID also poses a serious question. In the last decade, significant progress was made in de-prioritizing single-use and plastic items. Cities across the country banned the use of plastic grocery bags and plastic drink bottles were charged with an additional surcharge. But in the fear of spreading COVID-19 on surfaces (plastic, cardboard, paper, metal, ceramic, etc.), many of these policies have been overturned, unenforced, or repealed. While safety and health come first, non-single-use items can be just as safe or safer than regular plastic single-use items with proper washing and sanitation. Education on how to maintain progress in the fight against plastic while in the face of a global epidemic must continue. Habits – like recycling, composting, and refraining from single-use items – developed in a pre-COVID world must be restarted. Laws that were initially passed to curtail waste must be reinforced and spread to new jurisdictions.

There is also a large question regarding sustainable behavior incentives for companies put in place by the government. During the 2008 financial recession, the stimulus package that bailed out auto companies included certain stipulations around the number of EVs these industries must produce in future years. It was a major turning point in helping companies get back on their feet while also creating incentives that embraced sustainable behavior. The same practice was not adopted with the passing of the COVID-19 stimulus bill. The entire $2.2T bill completely ignored the U.S. renewables industry and avoided placing any incentives on transportation or hospitality companies to continue embracing sustainable practices. This is a challenging topic – speed is of the essence and wasting time debating a policy when millions of Americans wait for aid is not an effective approach.

One positive factor for sustainability in the time of COVID-19 is the effect on the investment and development of renewable energy assets. The low price of oil and gas during this time has resulted in lower topline growth for fossil fuel companies, while also making clean energy generation a significantly more lucrative and attractive investment. Utilities powered by renewable energy sources – like wind, solar, and water – generate lower operating expenses than traditional fossil fuel-powered plants. Overall, this trend is helping push investors to fund alternative energy investments that can be more resilient and weather economic downturns. While money continues to move towards renewable energy, quarantine delays the operational development of these assets. However, economists are optimistic, predicting that for the first time, up to 21% of electricity generated in the U.S. will be from renewable energy sources. Realistically, this is more a result of geopolitical disagreements on the production levels of oil than the virus itself. Still, this momentum should be celebrated and advanced.

Polluting and changing planetary dynamics perpetuate circumstances for which humankind is not prepared. Addressing short-term concerns while disregarding future implications is just procrastinating on solving contextual factors that enabled the pandemic. Scientists understand that climate change has a role in the spread of pathogens, diseases, and other microbiomes. As air and ocean temperatures change around the world, the migratory patterns of animals change, resulting in unexpected interactions between species. And as reforestation, manufacturing, drilling, and other initiatives destroy habitats, animal species must find other homes closer to human civilization. These interactions enable the exchange of pathogens between species. Such a jump is not always fully understood, but it does suggest that pathogens can mutate and exist in more resilient ways. In the example of COVID-19, scientists have discussed how bats, with a natural body temperature of 105℉, were able to carry a disease that is not easily affected by the 98.6℉ of a human or a 103℉ of a human fever. Another recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health highlighted how long-term exposure to high levels of pollution has a strong, positive correlation to death rates from COVID-19. Terrifyingly enough, the location of the study was stateside in New York City. Rising temperatures, inter-species interactions, increasing pollution, and resilient pathogens take years to become fully apparent to scientists and even longer to be made common knowledge to the average population. COVID-19 is a major warning. If changes are not made across industries and regions, it will not be the last.

Now more than ever, it becomes easy to look inwards – focusing on visible problems and ignoring what lacks immediate effects. It is this mindset that leaves current and future generations woefully unprepared for future hazards and crises. The world is too fragile to ignore the signs that have become so obvious. And the world is too interconnected today to solve problems in isolation. There is no more time for politicization, obfuscation, censorship, and self-interest. The time for excuses and delays is long gone.

We have the opportunity today to create a safer, more robust world. We have all the technology, human capital, and resources to embrace this massive undertaking. We must act and continue to hold ourselves, as well as our organizations, accountable for the long-term, environmental impact of our day-to-day actions.