How does the sustainability agenda push forward?

Apr 17, 2020

What does COVID-19 mean for climate change and sustainability? Dr Diarmuid Torney tells us how we can keep the conversation going about a sustainable future despite the pandemic.

We are in the midst of an epoch-defining moment in history. The COVID-19 pandemic is a global tragedy, but what does it mean for efforts to tackle climate change and create a more sustainable future?

Over the previous 18 months, climate change and sustainability were front and centre in government, business, and society. Greta Thunberg and the ‘Fridays for Future’ global school strike movement had captured the world’s imagination, drawing attention to increasingly dire predictions of climate scientists. Suddenly, climate change has disappeared from the news headlines. The world is understandably consumed by a different sort of crisis.

Our current moment is what social scientists call a “critical juncture”. Most of the time, societies are more or less locked into particular economic, political and societal pathways. But moments of crisis – critical junctures – provide spaces for otherwise unthinkable changes in direction, and this critical juncture can provide opportunities for new conversations about climate change and sustainable development. Here are three ways we can take advantage of those opportunities.

Managing systemic risk

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the fragility of our interconnected world and our vulnerability to systemic risks. The pandemic was an unforeseen risk, but the climate crisis is an entirely foreseeable risk. It is right and proper that the focus is currently on covid-19, but in time we will need to reflect on the lessons of the current crisis for managing systemic risk. 

Climate change will have far-reaching, indiscriminate, and non-reversible society-wide impacts. We need to learn from the current crisis that governments have a responsibility to manage this risk and pay greater attention to warnings from scientific and other experts. Having been maligned in some quarters in recent years, experts and expertise are in demand once more.

Adapting

COVID-19 has enforced abrupt changes to how we work and live our lives. Although hugely challenging, many are finding new and innovative ways to adapt to this new reality. Coming out of the crisis, some of these changes should stick, and we should have more confidence in our ability to change our lives to accommodate more sustainable-living practices. We may become more selective about international travel and flexible working, for example, both providing benefits for combatting climate change.

Government action and support

The state is back in fashion. As a recent Financial Times editorial put it, “Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy.” Governments across the world have intervened in unprecedented ways to support their national economies. So far, the focus has been on supporting workers and businesses that have been required to shut down temporarily, but attention is now shifting to the types of stimulus measures governments will put in place to restart their economies. There is an opportunity to align these stimulus packages around climate and sustainability goals. South Korea did this during the global financial crisis, devoting 80% of its stimulus package to green measures.

There are significant risks, as well. Interest in sustainability has historically tended to wane during economic downturns, and government funding may be cut for sustainability initiatives. It is impossible to know at this point which of these futures will prevail. The COVID-19 crisis provides a potential critical juncture, but the outcome will be determined by the decisions we take collectively over the months ahead.

Dr. Diarmuid Torney is an Associate Professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University