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Faculty Viewpoints: Will COVID-19 Set Us on a More Sustainable Path?

In the short term, COVID-19 has brought about what activists and governments haven’t been able to achieve: a sharp drop in carbon emissions. What does the pandemic mean for the longer-term trajectory of efforts to remake our economy in a sustainable way? Experts from Yale SOM, Yale Law School, and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies recently considered the possibilities.

An empty Interstate 110 at rush hour in Los Angeles on April 10, 2020. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
An empty Interstate 110 at rush hour in Los Angeles on April 10, 2020. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

By Dylan Walsh

In some places the water runs clear; in others the sky shows a rare azure. COVID-19 has, momentarily at least, stripped pollution from much of the world around us. Lower energy consumption in a world stilled by the pandemic has pushed carbon dioxide emissions down by almost 8% this year, according to the International Energy Agency, a drop that is equivalent to India’s entire energy demand.

Of course, the virus has also killed 350,000 people and plunged economies into deep recession. “Misery and suffering are not good climate change policy,” said Douglas Kysar of Yale Law School. 

Some observers have suggested, though, that COVID-19 could make a long-term difference as well—by prompting a deeper understanding of our shared risks and the need for global cooperation.

Together with Marian Chertow, who holds appointments at both Yale SOM and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES), and Daniel Esty of Yale Law School and Yale FES, Kysar recently examined that possibility in a conversation on sustainability policy after COVID-19. Todd Cort, a lecturer in sustainability at Yale SOM and faculty co-director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, served as moderator.

Chertow said that issues of environmental sustainability will be far from people’s minds as the pandemic fades. “What people will be most concerned about post-COVID is not sustainability, but economic security,” she said; they will be thinking about employment and their children’s education, about workplace safety and effective leadership in both governments and corporations. “As loyal as I am to my school, I really can’t say that environmental sustainability is more important than these foundational things, and so Americans will put their priorities on economic security.”

Esty agreed that economics and public health remain, for now, the overwhelming concern. But he suggested that questions around sustainability will again be “front and center” within a year or two. Promising trends that were in place prior to COVID-19 will resume. Many companies, for instance, were already abandoning their unswerving allegiance to shareholder profit and adopting instead a broader set of stakeholders, making bigger commitments to employees, suppliers, customers, and communities. He said that he expects this focus to return before long. 

Many companies were also examining the need for resilience in the face of crisis, and COVID-19 has powerfully affirmed the value of this effort by demonstrating the catastrophic potential of its opposite: thin supply chains and just-in-time production have left much of the world short on ventilators, testing reagents, hospital beds, protective equipment, and other products.

The pandemic presents a unique opportunity for the public sector too, as cities, states, and countries rebuild and reopen economies. For example, several cities expanded sidewalk margins and even closed streets as a way to make social distancing easier for pedestrians. Will these changes, which also happen to address sustainability concerns, endure? How will governments reconceive public transit amid fears of viral contagion? Will single-use plastics surge in popularity? 

“Governments need to be thinking about the path they want to take: either doubling down on outdated, unsustainable practices, or shifting to new and hopefully less burdensome practices for the planet,” Kysar said. The potential for sweeping positive change exists through thousands or millions of small decisions. “There will be a sustainable path, and there will be an unsustainable path, and it’s going to take courage and commitment to stick to the sustainable path.”

“I would start my thinking about responsible recovery with revisions to the healthcare system as well as housing, which is a source of inequity that, if addressed, solves lots of other problems for families.”

Kysar noted that this year’s 8% emissions reduction—achieved through the enforced solitude of billions of people around the globe and the associated decline of economic activity—represents what’s needed each year to reach climate targets by the middle of this century. To meet those targets, larger structural changes will be needed.

One important step would be a functional social safety net in the U.S., according to Chertow. “In many ways, COVID-19 has hit at our differences,” she said; the pandemic has amplified divisions and highlighted inequality. “I would start my thinking about responsible recovery with revisions to the healthcare system as well as housing, which is a source of inequity that, if addressed, solves lots of other problems for families.”

Esty suggested the need for a modernized social contract between business and society—an idea that is echoed by Unilever CEO Alan Jope, who has publicly called for “a new model of capitalism.” Kysar added that such large-scale economic reform could help create a more sustainable society.

“I’ve often wondered whether we could start looking at reducing wealth inequality as itself the most cost effective way to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. Across the world, emissions are tightly correlated with wealth, and highly skewed at the top end. “If we just took money away from that elite 1% and redistributed it to the global 99% that would actually be a sustainability policy, and not just an economic justice policy.”

Watch the discussion:
 

Department: Feature