Some of the most striking images from the early days of the pandemic, when public health orders and lockdowns ground economies to a halt, were the arresting photos of the Himalayas, suddenly visible from across northern India, as decades of unrelenting smog finally abated. Unbelievably, some locals glimpsed the immense mountain range for the first time in their lives.
It’s never too late to clear things up. And the pandemic has revived a movement that has its roots in the 18th century, when the word “sustainability” was first coined (in German) to describe a new approach to forestry enabling a continual harvest of wood. It’s a movement widely believed to have entered the mainstream with the 1987 Our Common Future report – a UN-backed initiative, overseen by Norway’s then prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, which laid out an ambitious pathway towards a “sustainable economy”. This left us with the enduringly relevant definition of sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Historians of the future will see the last year as a major turning point in world history, and perhaps even the dawn of a new era. The enforced economic slowdown of the pandemic, which inadvertently drove down emissions and induced simple living (gardening, sour dough, local hiking!), provides new momentum for recalibrating cultural values and changing the very trajectory of our globalised industrial society.
In many ways, sustainability has been a success story. It has driven an unprecedented increase in renewable energy, revived local and organic food markets, led to the start of the phasing out of single-use plastics, catalysed circular economy systems and sparked an unprecedented normalisation and institutionalisation of sustainability within governments, NGOs, corporations and universities, making many organisations less wasteful, more energy-efficient and more committed to the “triple bottom line”, which means weighing equally social, environmental and financial wellbeing. The rise of theories such as Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics”, adopted by the city of Amsterdam, offer exciting new ways for such ideas to be further adapted.
Moreover, sustainability has had an enormous impact on consumer behaviour, driving sales in everything from shade-grown coffee, environmentally friendly bath products and Fair Trade chocolate, to investor decisions. So-called ESG investments (ones that support environment, social wellbeing and good governance) captured $51.1bn of net new money from investors in 2020. Increasingly, consumers want to see their values reflected in their spending and investing habits.
On balance, however, the sustainability movement has failed to solve the most pressing social, economic and environmental challenge of the day – climate change, and the fossil-fuelled economic growth that sits as its principal driver. Hence the increasing urgency from activists and climate scientists alike.
The Paris climate agreement of 2016 was certainly a win for sustainability, but it took far too long to get all of the world’s countries on the same page. Sustainability wasn’t mainstream, or widely seen as a priority, until around 2000. Before that the pressure to act on sustainability came largely from specialised interest groups, including climate scientists, energy specialists, some policymakers, ecological economists and simple living advocates who had been inspired by environmentalism.
As a result, the major milestones in the history of sustainability are largely institutional, methodological and top-down in nature – the 1987 Montreal protocol that banned ozone-depleting substances, the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, among others. These milestones have had beneficial impacts, but they did not result in the systemic transformations that was their original intent. As 2030 climate targets bear down upon us, our inability to solve the major crisis of our age serves as a potent reminder of why much of the pandemic-era slowdown must, in some form, remain.
The smartest jurisdictions figured out how to advance sustainability during the pandemic and make the most of the precipitous decline in traffic congestion. Cities from Milan to Mexico City and Mumbai took tangible steps to advance active transportation, build new bike lanes and create “the 15-minute city”. A realistic goal will be for communities to come together and decide cooperatively on a new, sustainable, low-impact vision for the future that would undoubtedly include more robust healthcare, emergency and basic support systems. In a survey, around two thirds of Europeans said they did not want to return to pre-pandemic levels of air pollution. That dream will become a reality only with a concerted effort.
It is no longer heretical to observe that economic growth will not, and cannot, solve our climate crisis. From spring 2020 until the early months of 2021, absolute emissions worldwide decreased for the first time in decades, by an average of 26%. Sadly, the early signs from 2021 suggest that emissions are already bouncing back. The economic downturn of 2008 slowed emissions growth, but we haven’t witnessed an absolute dip since the USSR broke apart, creating a temporary slowdown in the world economy. It is now time to face this elephant in the room – that more growth means more emissions. We, of the wealthy global north, must find ways to create prosperity without aggregate economic growth.
Promise comes, too, from the energy sector, where peak oil seems finally to have occurred, thanks in part to the pandemic. Demand for oil fell by 9% in 2020, and although it’s already rebounding, it is clear that we’re witnessing the global plateauing of fossil fuel demand. What a post-fossil fuel economy will looks like is anyone’s guess, but one clear takeaway from the pandemic is that we cannot return to self-centred and worry-free air travel. People need to stop flying, or at the very least, to fly far less often, and only out of absolute necessity – as in the case of a death in the family.
Happily, we finally have the fossil fuel companies against the wall. Shell was recently ordered to limit emissions in a historic court case, and both ExxonMobil and Chevron recently had shareholder revolts over climate concerns. The divestment movement grows daily. With sustained pressure, we will see a near-complete receding of fossil fuel consumption over the next two decades, even if China stubbornly drags its feet.
As we look ahead to the After Times of the pandemic, we can mitigate our collective trauma by making meaning from the suffering we’ve endured and by reviving a flagging sustainability movement. Let us learn to normalise and enjoy the low-carbon, low-cost, simple pleasures that truly sustain us.