How COVID-19 Has Accelerated Interest In Environmental Issues

Electric vehicle sales and renewable energy demand have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how it has accelerated interest in environmental issues

“There’s a deeper level of awareness that there are some unavoidable truths about business and its impact on society,” explains Charlie Donovan, executive director of the Center for Climate Finance at Imperial College Business School. Having worked as the head of structuring and valuation for alternative energy at BP, Charlie now heads up the MSc in Climate Change, Management, and Finance at Imperial.  

Aoife Brophy Haney, departmental research lecturer in innovation and enterprise at Saïd Business School and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, believes the pandemic has triggered people to re-engage with their local environment in a different way than they did before.

“There’s a sense of being more aware of your surroundings, particularly to local environmental issues. The world has stopped, and your local context becomes so much more important. You start to connect with places that you didn't necessarily do in your normal routines,” she suggests.

This goes beyond sharing pictures on social media of animals reclaiming urban areas during lockdown—goats reclaiming the streets of Llandudno in Wales, or fish returning to the canals of Venice.

A radical upheaval of society to stop climate change may have previously seemed impossible. The magnitude of the task on a global scale is daunting. But now, the shared experience of lockdown has demonstrated to people that locally, a different way of life in which environmental values rank highly is possible. The cumulative effect of local effort on a global scale could be huge.

“It comes down to how you think about the future. We’ve seen different versions of the future that are now possible, that weren’t really on people’s radars before something like this actually happened,” Aoife says. 

It has shown the resilience of renewable energy during a crisis

COVID-19’s impact on certain industries will be long term, if not permanent, like the devastating effect on the arts and retail sectors; but lockdown has also opened a window for innovation when it comes to addressing climate change.

Aoife’s research focuses on new business models and forms of collaboration between different organizations (public, private and non-profit) that are required to support sustainable system transformations.  

She has seen plenty of examples of how renewable energy offers a solution to uncertainty which fossil fuels don’t. One great benefit of ‘off-grid’ renewables, such as solar panels, is that they are decentralized—tapped directly from the environment to your own power grid—and thus not reliant on global supply chains that fossil fuels use.  

She cites examples of farmers working in sub-Saharan Africa using off-grid renewables for irrigation, meaning they are less vulnerable in the face of energy shortages and disruption surrounding the pandemic. This same logic has applied to many healthcare centers in Africa which are now solar-powered.

“With something like renewables, decentralized solutions are rising to prominence because people are aware that we need more resilience in the face of disruptions and shocks,” Aoife says.

It’s also shifted the electric vehicle debate. Aoife points out how increasing demand for deliveries (either groceries or online shopping) has caused carbon emissions from freight transport or trucking to increase. Wider use of electric delivery vehicles would have softened that impact. The value of electric vehicle companies is clear. Nikola, an electric trucking vehicle company and one of Tesla’s biggest competitors in the EV market, is now valued at around $13 billion.

This comes back to Aoife’s idea about opportunities for alternatives in the face of mass disruption. “It’s an example of this different version of the future and is a big leverage point for policy makers as something they can actually tackle.”

It’s shown why we need to restructure businesses around ESG


Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella | ©KMERON via Flickr


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