COVID-19 Can Help Wealthier Nations Prepare for a Sustainability Transition

While the challenge of getting the coronavirus outbreak under control is surely ominous, it merits recognizing that from a sustainability standpoint we may have a rare window of opportunity.

Originally published on Future Earth on March 13, 2020 and updated on March 23, 2020.


This commentary was prepared by Maurie Cohen, Joseph Sarkis, Patrick Schröder, Magnus Bengtsson, Steven McGreevy, and Paul Dewick on behalf of the Future Earth Knowledge-Action Network on Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production. The text was written during the first week of March 2020 before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be pandemic and the truly global proportions of the situation became apparent. This is a rapidly evolving catastrophic emergency, and with the passage of time, some of the observations outlined here have been outpaced by events. Future Earth extends its deepest sympathy to colleagues on the frontlines of the outbreak, to people who have suffered losses, and to everyone subjected to profound disruption. The urgent issue at the moment is to save lives. An Open Forum via webinar is scheduled for 12:00 GMT on March 26, 2020 to discuss ways to move forward in light of the issues raised in this commentary. Inquiries can be directed to sscp_kan@futureearth.org.


Forecasts of the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic are growing increasingly dire as the scale and severity of the contagion expands. Global supply chains are collapsing, tourism is in free fall, and entire calendars of public events are being canceled. School closures and mass quarantines beyond China, Italy, and other frontline countries are leading to deeply curtailed consumer expenditures. The threat of a protracted global recession is with each passing day becoming ever more probable. Investors are looking to finance ministers and central bankers to further slash interest rates and to offer ironclad promises of generous fiscal stimulus. However, it is becoming apparent that the effectiveness of these strategies is extremely limited and will do little to steady anxious stock markets. Meanwhile, in the real economy, businesses are beginning to feel the tight pinch of dampened demand and preparing to furlough employees.

While the challenge of getting the coronavirus outbreak under control is surely ominous, it merits recognizing that from a sustainability standpoint we may have a rare window of opportunity. The challenge will be to lock in the reductions in energy and material utilization that are already occurring and will probably intensify in coming weeks and months. COVID-19 could inadvertently contribute to meaningful progress toward meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

As we describe below, the coronavirus situation provides, challenging though they may be, several leverage points for opening pathways to a sustainability transition.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting a scaling back of working hours, either to adjust to slower business activity or because parents and caregivers need to remain at home with young children due to school closures. Research suggests that when people have the option to reduce the amount of time devoted to gainful employment, they come to value the benefits of a diminished schedule. Even when conditions improve, there is often disinclination to revert to prior arrangements. Sustainability scientists have suggested that we could shrink our working hours while simultaneously enhancing individual and societal well-being and reducing carbon emissions. Clearly, this possibility is not available to everyone, especially to hourly workers whose wages are tied to a time clock; the challenges of these workers relate to the next point.

Second, the public health emergency and economic contraction is an opportunity to broaden experiments involving a universal basic income. During an extended quarantine, hourly workers will face increasingly precarious circumstances. Political pressure to institute a more adequate system of financial security will mount as vulnerable populations struggle to maintain basic needs such as access to housing and nutrition.

Third, eruption of community transmission and implementation of lockdowns will disrupt daily commuting patterns and encourage workplaces to shift face-to-face activities to virtual communications platforms. Even partial closures will motivate businesses and other organizations to deploy flextime arrangements that allow employees to design their own schedules and to work remotely. These new routines will prove popular and be difficult to reverse as the crisis recedes. Similarly, it is already becoming apparent that there is a tremendous amount of ultimately unnecessary long-distance travel. There is little reason to suspect that frequent fliers could not eliminate at least some trips without loss to knowledge exchange and professional development.

Fourth, while there is currently a rush to buy as consumers stock up on nonperishable supplies, many retailers and consumers will in due course shift to sourcing products from local vendors. This trend will reduce resource throughput and contribute to more sustainable consumption patterns. There is also the prospect that over the longer term such developments might encourage promotion of a new environment and trade agenda that reflects wider concerns about the need to foster less energy- and material-intensive lifestyles.

Finally, in the event that COVID-19 induces a lengthy recession, conventional economic measures will start to convey politically vexing information. Faced with such a challenge, elected officials and policy makers will begin to embrace accounting frameworks that provide more affirmative feedback. Paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, unfolding developments tend to move gradually until they happen suddenly. In other words, the coronavirus outbreak may herald a tipping point at which gross domestic product and its companion metrics are supplanted by alternatives more facilitative of a sustainability transition.

For both better and worse, we can look to China to get a glimpse of what the next few months are likely to hold for the rest of the world. Notably, scaling back on hypermobile lifestyles can save human lives. According to the World Health Organization, there are 250,000 automobile accidents annually in China. Traffic came to a virtual standstill in large parts of the country for two months and this situation may have resulted in about 40,000 fewer vehicle-related deaths. With some creative policies, we could achieve proportional outcomes merely by reducing working hours and enabling a larger number of people to work remotely.

In addition, as automotive and industrial air emissions decrease, respiratory conditions improve. A widely disseminated 2015 research paper estimated that air pollution contributes to 1.6 million deaths in China (17 percent of all fatalities). If we assume that air quality in the country is 20% clearer today due to the downturn in travel and manufacturing activity, a substantial number of lives have been spared. Surely, such extrapolations are tricky—and would need to be counterbalanced by the health impacts of reduced physical activity, emotional anxiety, nutritional inadequacy, and so forth—but this is not a reason to ignore them.

An observation frequently attributed to Winston Churchill is that we should never let a good crisis go to waste. The coronavirus outbreak is a deeply unfortunate situation that is unquestionably causing widespread suffering. While this is regrettable, we should not dismiss that the event provides an opportunity to make some significant headway toward a timely and necessary sustainability transition.


Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

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