World Environment Day 2020: How a pandemic is changing sustainability

To mark World Environment Day, experts in green finance, circular economy, renewable energy, ecotourism, regenerative agriculture, environmental journalism and sustainable cities tell Eco-Business how the coronavirus pandemic has changed their worlds.

A lone man walks down a usually busy street in Little India, Singapore, during the coronavirus outbreak. Image: Tim Ha/Eco-Business
A lone man walks down a usually busy street in Little India, Singapore, during the coronavirus outbreak. Image: Tim Ha/Eco-Business

Today is World Environment Day. And it is like no other in the 46 years since the United Nations first announced that 5 June would be a day devoted to environmental advocacy.

Instead of planting trees or participating in public events, people in the 143 countries where World Environment Day is celebrated are mostly stuck at home, under lockdown, commemorating the day through online seminars and programmes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended more than environmental movements. The virus, which is believed to have emerged from a wildlife market in China late last year, has infected 6.4 million and killed approaching 400,000 people at the last count, has impacted all aspects of sustainable development.

We will continue to look for companies that have built sustainability into their strategies. We want to bank on long-term winners.

Mike Ng, managing director, structured finance and sustainable finance, OCBC Bank

To mark this occasion, Eco-Business spoke to experts in travel and tourism, green finance, circular economy, sustainable cities, regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, and environmental journalism to ask how the pandemic has changed them and their worlds.

GREEN FINANCE - Mike Ng, managing director, structured finance and sustainable finance, OCBC Bank:

We have noticed a bit of a slowdown in sustainable investments over the Covid period, although it has still been busy—and we expect the pace to be quite hectic going forward. 

There is a growing awareness of environmental issues, and that affects the business world. This past year, two key events have happened: the Australian bushfireswhich are more easily linked to climate changeand Covid-19. Coming out of Covid, most businesses will be focused on their immediate survival. But once the economic shock is over, businesses will start thinking about how they could be affected in the future. Covid has exposed weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Investors will focus even more on ESG [environmental, social and governance] performance, as companies with a high ESG focus have shown to perform best while stock markets have been tanking. Regulators will respond to stronger calls from consumers for a stronger policy focus on sustainability. For us, we will continue to look for companies that have built sustainability into their strategies. We want to bank on long-term winners.

And I do expect consumer behaviour to change. I have realised that I can live simply, and I think other people have found this too. I don’t need to shop or consume as much, and that influences my children. People are buying more from local producers, as things arrive quicker. They are exercising more, and running outside rather than on treadmills. People won’t travel as much. Now, I can do three to four meetings in a day, whereas if I was travelling I could do one or two. People are seeing bluer skies, and will want them to stay that way.

SUSTAINABLE CITIES - Jacqueline Lam, deputy regional director, East, Southeast Asia and Oceania, C40 Cities:

The pandemic has provided a preview of the disruptions to come if we do not address climate change. Mayors of C40 Cities [a group of 96 cities that have committed to climate action] have rallied together to launch a Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, ensuring that we do not return to business-as-usual and instead focus on an equitable and sustainable recovery.

In the wake of the outbreak clusters found in migrant worker dormitories in Singapore, the city-state has announced improvements to migrant worker dormitory conditions. This is a clear signal to build back better, although local community not-in-my-back-yard responses [to where the new dormitories are built] are not conducive to this growth mindset, and need to be addressed.

Quezon City in the Philippines has pledged to continue with its Inclusive Climate Action plans, with a focus on pandemic recovery measures. This will entail extensive public engagement, including those in low-income communities, on the city’s climate action planning process.

In many cities, we’ve seen how much of the workforce, barring essential services, can be productive working at home. This gives impetus for more compact developments avoiding congestion and carbon emissions from commuting to city centres, reimagining urban land use and design.

The pandemic has made people realise the fragility of human biology, and in turn people are realising that our environment is vulnerable to human industrial activity.

Lionel Steinitz, CEO, LYS Energy Group

Cities such as Paris have embraced the 15-minute city concept, where work, amenities and residences are located within a 15-minute commute to reduce emissions and improve efficiency. Melbourne has pledged to bring forward plans for 44km of cycling lanes to be delivered in 2021, seven years earlier than originally planned.

It has been heartening to see many local authorities and businesses move their activities into virtual formats. But we must bear in mind those who do not have access to technological tools, and work harder to ensure their voices are heard. The post-pandemic new normal must allow us to leverage technology to bridge distances not widen them.

RENEWABLE ENERGY - Lionel Steinitz, CEO, LYS Energy Group:

As a manager of a company, I get overwhelmed by work and lose perspective on what’s important. Covid-19 has meant I’ve spent more time with my family. Before Covid-19 travel restrictions, I was travelling to at least one different country every week. We oversee the construction of solar energy assets, and maintain and change the equipment. But there’s a lot we can do remotely, as we monitor hundreds of thousands of solar panels globally.

Covid-19 has caused some delay to distribution and I expect to see a Darwinian process play out among some companies with cash flow issues. But I’m positive about the future of the sector. There’s been renewed interest from the investment communitywe received a loan from UOB to fund green infrustructure in Southeast Asiaand we have been receiving a lot of calls from clients thinking about how to decarbonise.

The pandemic has made people realise the fragility of human biology, and in turn people are realising that our environment is vulnerable to human industrial activity. It has made people more aware that solutions exist. But there are different speeds of adoption, and I fear that we will miss the opportunity as a civilisation to go down the right path. Corporations are starting to see the light, and consumer awareness is there. But at the government level, we’re still not seeing the right signals.

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM -  Eric Ricaurte, founder, Greenview:

Covid-19 has been devastating for travel and tourism. It’s probably been the hardest hit of any industry. A lot of people are out of work, not only in tourism companies, but people in the many communities that depend on tourism. Those that are still going are stretched with fewer staff to maintain operations, and put safety measures in place.

Sustainable tourism has been impacted on various fronts. The pandemic is making consumers much more sustainability-aware, and there will be a bigger drive for responsible tourism as people are more conscious of their purchasing decisions. In turn, destinations are becoming more conscious of managing the impact of tourism, and the more environmentally-focused operators are looking the most competitive. More online travel agencies are embedding sustainability in their valuations of tourism supply. 

Investor interest in sustainable tourism is still there, but there’s currenty a pause on it. The industry needs to get back on its feet first. It’s unfortunate that Covid hit just as sustainable tourism was getting started. One positive outcome of Covid-19 is that overtourism, which was a big issue, isn’t one now. Destinations have had some time to recover, and operators have the opportunity to think about how to manage the impact of tourism better. 

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE - Huiying Ng, co-founder, Foodscape Collective:

One thing that struck me when pandemic news waves started rolling in was a sense of liberation. I felt the fear that others were feeling, but I knew why they are scared, and this means that people are preparing for the future in the way they need to.

As the possibility of food shortages emerged, there was a huge wave of interest among people—from gardeners and never-ever-gardened types in Singapore—asking how they can grow their own food. That’s where regenerative agriculture begins. We can as a society start to hold the institutions and policies that allow unsustainable practices, such as forest destruction for industrial, monocrop agriculture—which increases the risk of pandemics—accountable. We can start to see that we can move past business-as-usual and practise new ways of living.

We’re seeing major impacts from Covid-19, including the collapse of ecotourism, reduced patrols of protected areas, increased poaching and illegal logging, and reduced field access for researchers.

Rhett Butler, founder, Mongabay

The pandemic has woken people up to what happens when we have to live in place, when connectivity is suspended. In Singapore, people have been tending to the Biodiverse Edible Garden in Jurong Central Park, because they want to learn about regenerative agriculture. In other places, lands with soil degraded from half a century of chemical input are being reclaimed and the soil restored. 

The resilience of communities has opened up political and social possibilities. Amid the fear and uncertainty, when you find connection and humanity, that is the spark that drives change. We need mental shifts: to move beyond fighting against the system as an end goal, towards growing differently so that methods of control and domination become irrelevant.

ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALISM - Rhett Butler, founder, Mongabay:

Mongabay has not been spared the widespread disruption caused by Covid-19, but so far, the organisation is weathering the situation well in part due to our virtual operations, distributed nature, and careful stewardship of resources.

To protect our staff, contributors, and the vulnerable populations we often cover, in mid-March Mongabay recalled all contributors and implemented a freeze on travel-based assignments. To continue supporting contributors, we opened a call for desk-based reporting, including stories based on analysis of satellite data, remote interviews, and already-completed fieldwork. Mongabay’s readership has surged to record levels since the beginning of the year. Lockdowns across much of the world are probably a significant factor in this sharp increase in traffic, although we’re also seeing more outlets picking up our stories. Our overall content production is up.

Beyond our organisation, we’re seeing major impacts from Covid-19 in the conservation field, including the collapse of ecotourism, reduced patrols of protected areas, increased poaching and illegal logging, and reduced field access for researchers. Some industry observers view this disruption as an opportunity to shift away from stagnant and ineffective approaches to conservation. In some places, big NGOs have left the field, while community-based projects have continued to operate.

CIRCULAR ECONOMY - Susan Ruffo, executive director, The Circulate Initiative:

Our work in the circular economy has been directly impacted by the pandemic, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities in the waste management systems we are trying to fix. Jobs such as waste picking that are already unsafe have become even more so. Systems that struggle to manage waste are grappling with increased volumes and contamination. Entrepreneurs in the sector are affected by the economic slowdown, and declining oil prices have made virgin plastic even more appealing. Positive behavioural changes, like using reusable bags and cups, have been rolled back by regulation or practice.

Covid-19 has highlighted the interconnectedness of the circular economy and ocean plastic solutions with other needs and priorities, such as protecting public health, building community resilience, and building a diverse and vibrant economy. To develop circular economy solutions that are sustainable, we need to design new systems that address these multiple needs instead of forcing tradeoffs.

We are at a crossroads. We can either choose to ignore the learnings and continue on the path that we were on prior, where existing ways of doing business survive, or we can embrace the opportunity for change by using the resources and efforts that will be put toward recovery to choose and support systems that help us move forward.

While there is no place that has all the answers to this issue, there are lessons to be learned from what cities are trying. In Pune, India, efforts are being made to engage and include informal waste pickers, particularly women, who make up most of the city’s collectors. And in San Fernando, the Philippines, an approach that includes government commitment, public investment, public engagement, and citizen education has helped reduce the percentage of trash diverted from landfills from 12 per cent to 80 per cent.

Such systems should include incentivising circular economy businesses; recognising workers in the informal sector, with greater access to healthcare and education; and setting new design or recycling standards for industry, such as recycled packaging content standards. These measures are crucial to reducing and mitigating waste – and therefore contaminated waste – and serve as a critical tool to build social and environmental resilience against crises such as the one we face now.

To be part of global activities celebrating World Environment Day, you can visit the United Nations Environment Programme page here.

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