Seeing The Bigger Picture


Will COVID-19 derail or accelerate climate action? A few weeks ago, I attended a thought-provoking seminar by Professor Frédéric Dalsace, Professor of Marketing & Strategy at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), on the topic of ‘Sustainability: Seeing the Bigger Picture’. The discussion was framed by the open question about whether or not the coronavirus pandemic will derail or accelerate our sustainability efforts around the world.

Unfortunately, we should expect a short-term, bounce-back effect from a likely doubling down on emissions by governments to ‘save the economy’. In the worst case, this ‘revenge pollution’ as it is known could reverse any overall drop in current greenhouse gas emissions. But what of the long-term effect after this rebound? Will countries build back better or simply attempt to rebuild? The answer, according to Professor Dalsace, will be shaped by our collective view on what we have been living through and our collective feelings regarding the effectiveness of our respective governing bodies in dealing with this health crisis.

Consider a classic 2×2 matrix with four different scenarios. In the first two, COVID-19 is thought of as a ‘one of a kind’ event and the difference is in how well the crisis has been handled. In scenario one, the collective feeling is that the one-off crisis was handled well enough, and therefore the outlook in terms of building back better would be not be promising. Why change? In the second scenario, the once in a lifetime pandemic is considered to have been managed poorly by national institutions and there is an outcry for remedial action in terms of public policy and practices. Under these conditions, social and environmental issues would gain greater prominence and the notion of building something different would gain traction.

Personally, I do not think we are facing a one-of-a-kind event. We may face a second COVID-19 peak as restrictions are relaxed; the virus may mutate into COVID-20 or COVID-21; a vaccine may prove elusive. No one knows the destiny of this virus. But we do know that the climate crisis has not gone away, and that this pandemic is not the only global crisis we need to prepare for.

Scenarios three and four consider this pandemic as one of many potential crises that we must face collectively. In the third scenario, the mood is negative regarding the government’s overall handling of the current crisis. Things have to change as there is more to come, and people are willing to trade in some of their freedoms for better security and a stronger safety net in facing the next crisis. The longer-term impact on sustainability is uncertain as building back to be ‘better prepared’ next time would depend on the priorities of each government and how they regain trust.

In the last scenario, COVID-19 is considered to have been well-handled collectively and is thought of as one of a number of potential crises that we cannot simply ignore for now. In this case, the pandemic becomes a ‘wake-up call’ that was dealt with this time through a combination of individuals’ involvement, local and national leadership, and international collaboration. The consequence from this sense of collective achievement would be a citizens’ mindset shift, with a more civic-led orientation to change and real momentum behind building back better.

When polled, the international audience attending this seminar thought the last scenario was most likely. Why? I believe it is because so many countries have already moved along the path of decentralisation that has led to local empowerment of cities and citizens. At the same time, we know the climate crisis has not gone away. Ironically, we are reminded of this fact as we endure lockdown, every time we breathe cleaner air or watch nature thriving.

So where does this leave you? If, like me, you believe we have managed collectively to avoid the worst, then now is our opportunity to chart a very different path to social and economic recovery. What roles should national and local governments, companies and communities play in the systemic change we need? There is no one solution, but there is a common purpose in putting this civic-led thinking into collective action.

Originally published on LinkedIn on May 27th, 2020.

Photo by Abigail Low on Unsplash.

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