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Let's not return to business as usual after coronavirus

Neil King
Neil King
June 5, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has provided us with the opportunity to make our economies more sustainable. We should be courageous and seize this moment for the environment, says DW's Neil King.

Goats roaming the streets in Llandudno, Wales
Image: Getty Images/C. Furlong

The coronavirus crisis has proven that societies are willing to make radical, overnight changes, provided they serve the common good. Many of us accepted the myriad restrictions imposed on daily life during the first months of the pandemic as a necessary measure and an act of solidarity to help contain the virus.

This should imbue us with confidence that we can also tackle and master the even bigger threat posed by climate change — provided we act as one global community.

The coronavirus crisis has had unintended positive side effects, such as reduced environmental pollution. The air and water quality in many coastal regions has improved. Global CO2 emission have dropped to record levels. But, let's face it, once the pandemic passes, pollution will most likely return to pre-crisis levels, or worse. We witnessed the same rebound effect after the 2008/2009 financial crisis.

Read more: Life after coronavirus: We can shape a totally different world

Companies must change

The coronavirus crisis, in short, won't solve the climate crisis. So it will be on us to organize a long-term strategy to cut CO2 emissions. We will have to radically transform our economies and everyday lives if we're serious about limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Neil King
DW Environment Reporter Neil King is one of the hosts of DW's On the Green Fence podcastImage: Neil King

Many researchers, like sustainability science expert Maja Göpel, now argue we must abandon the idea of perpetual economic growth. And that we should refrain from conceptualizing economies in terms of gross domestic product alone. Instead, many experts say, a comprehensive tax reform should aim to promote human well-being and protect the environment.

In practice, this would mean taxing companies based on the quantity and quality of resources used, rather than the amount of profit they generate. 

Ex-banker and environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev proposes an even more radical step. He has called for companies' annual reports to provide detailed information on their ecological footprint. Sukhdev is convinced that, in order to avoid bad PR, companies would then pursue a more sustainable way of doing business.

Is less really more?

Read more: Pandemic sheds light on importance of biodiversity

These are all sensible measures. And the ongoing pandemic has given us the leverage to push companies to adopt them. If they want financial support from the taxpayer, they should enact such environmental reforms. Full stop. Period.

Alas, we're witnessing the very opposite right now.

Akin to the financial crisis, the EU is in the process of creating a massive recovery fund. Up to €750 billion have been pledged. The aim is to stabilize hard-hit economies and help them return to the pre-crisis status-quo — environmental considerations play a marginal role at best.

It means we're failing to seize a unique opportunity to bring about the sustainable, long-term transformation of our economies.

Sure, far-reaching changes can be risky amid a recession. But returning to the pre-crisis status-quo is even riskier, as we're endangering our very existence on this planet.

Let's remember lessons learned

Public life and our working lives have slowed down considerably since the pandemic broke out. With surprising efficiency, many workers were given the tools to work from home. This has permitted many to spend more time with their families, instead of at their workplaces, and in public transport commuting there and back. Some have even used this new downtime to plant vegetables.

This has given us a glimpse of what a more sustainable and decelerated lifestyle can look like. Though, of course, it has been stressful for working parents. I won't sugarcoat that.

Read more: EU presents 'Green Deal' farming plan to halve pesticide use

This new, decelerated lifestyle has prioritized solidarity and human well-being over profit and prestige. Maybe this teaches us a valuable lesson about what makes life worth living, and what counts as superfluous baggage.

Will we remember these valuable lessons when the coronavirus pandemic dissipates? Or will we literally return to business as usual? And once more become well-oiled cogs in a massive capitalist consumption machine, as post-growth economist Niko Paech would argue.

I'm an optimist by nature. Yet I fear many will gladly return to their old pre-crisis ways. Humans, after all, are habitual creatures. But humans are also capable of learning. So let's try to convince more people that change is needed, before this unique, crisis-induced opportunity vanishes.

The coronavirus and Africa's environment

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