A green recovery is our best hope of staving off the climate crisis
And it might just prove the biggest business opportunity in the Covid-19 recession, too.
There is a dangerous, seductive illusion that is bubbling up in many people’s minds. With the virus in abeyance in many countries could we, perhaps, return quickly to the way the world was before? Even if it is (or will be) possible, the answer should be “no”. For there is a bigger crisis on our horizon: a climate crisis.
In these dark months, we have seen a tantalising glimpse of a different world. One with less pollution, less travel and a massive drop in fossil fuel use. Can we take that little glimpse of a different world, and nurse it into a true green recovery? Could the seeds of the solution to the next crisis lie in the embers of this one?
The highest levels of both government and commerce are debating these ideas. The World Economic Forum, which seeks to bridge those two, has been publishing extensively on the subject, bringing together the most focused and urgent ideas for change:
So, while the pain of COVID-19 is devastating, it has created a policy window for climate action that six months ago would have been unimaginable. In the next year, trillions of dollars will be spent on recovery plans, stimulus packages and company bailouts. During this historic moment, governments can change the course of the future, investing in technologies that prevent systemic risks, including those presented by climate change, drastically reducing emissions and improving societal resilience.
A greener politics
Of course, some impetus for this recovery will need to come from our political leaders:
Demand for oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy will fall off a cliff in 2020, while demand for renewables will increase modestly. It’s vital that governments promote investment in sectors that can and should continue to grow, or we risk creating a negative ripple effect in the energy sector which will throttle investment and exacerbate the recessionary impact of COVID-19 on the wider economy.
Earlier in July, a global summit of energy ministers met — virtually, of course — to talk green recovery. They tried to chart a global course between the twin crises of present economic recession and future climate catastrophe.
From most, the need for a clear way forward was obvious:
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, told the conference, conducted online, that countries should choose a green recovery for sound economic reasons, as renewable energy was now cheaper than coal, and for health reasons, as clean energy reduced air pollution — as well as for combating the climate emergency.
A corporate green recovery
But, on a smaller stage, the pandemic offers other opportunities. Companies can bring about change whose potential was there, but societal inertia has held back. Many of us, for example, are spending much more time at home. Those who can, are likely to be working from home for months yet, and it seems clear that many will never return to the same old full-time commute.
That means people will be paying much more attention to their homes. And in that lies both a commercial opportunity, and an environmental one. What does a green recovery in buildings look like?
A green recovery should start here. That means mass refurbishments to improve insulation, replace windows, reduce air leakage, improve heating (and cooling) systems, and switch fuels from coal, gas and oil towards renewable energies such as wind and solar.
Doing this well creates jobs, allows an eased transition into our new real estate reality, and helps green our living spaces. If, as we predicted, we see mass refurbishment of city centre property to facilitate less office space and more residential, there’s an opportunity to reshape that on sustainable grounds, and to pump prime urban economies with government funding on green lines.
Digital business for the new normal
Build a business for our new reality, or reshape one about it, and you will position yourself to take advantage of the consumer demand for these solutions. Cannily, you can also use the likely state funding available for them as part of stimulus and recovery plans. And they’ll also be well positioned to grab talent looking for meaningful but secure work in our uncertain economic future.
And yes, there’s a digital opportunity in all this. Digital technology facilitates so many of the changes we’ve lived with for months. Now that the case has been proven for remote work, for phone-based contactless payment, for online retailing — how do we build on that? We’ve been accelerated through five years of digital development in fewer than five months. What new businesses and approaches can be built on that new platform?
Many of the old digital companies, whose entire culture was office-centric, with the perks of free food and beer to keep people ever longer in the office, may not be the best ones to lead us into the green recovery. It’s time for a second wave of digital innovation.
What products can you — the NEXT community — build that will help us transition into a new way of life? The demand is there. Only 12% of the British want life to return to the old normal (which is probably just as well, as Brexit is still lurking in the wings…), with similar figures seen in many nations. That’s a market opportunity right there.
Resolving the economic tension
However, there’s a tension here. The unpleasant realities of shrunken economies will propel some politicians and businesses to try and move us back to the old normal. Survival and brutal GDP and unemployment figures could focus people’s minds the wrong way.
This would be an error. Those companies, cities and economies that can take this opportunity will stand to benefit both financially, and in quality of life. In doing so they will reshape our economic and physical environment to insulate us against the next crisis on the horizon — climate change.
We have a rare opportunity where the world has stopped, for a little while. As we reopen it, can we rebuild it on greener line, on silicon and the environment, on sand and trees?
If there is light at the end of this dark Covid-19 tunnel, let's make it a green one.