Will the COVID-19 pandemic change our approach on sustainability?

May 13, 2020 James Hayward

When the city locked down, the people of New Delhi experienced the longest spell of clear air on record. It was a similar story in other major cities that implemented ‘shelter-in-place orders.

So can we turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to reset course and build a cleaner, more sustainable world? Or will things go back to the way they were?

Can we build back better? 

37 billion tons of CO2 was released from burning fossil fuels in 2019, a record and the third consecutive year of rising CO2 emissions. 

LA Times

Since the countries have entered lockdown emissions have fallen dramatically. In China, emissions fell by 25 percent in the first four weeks following Chinese New Year in late January. In the UK, daily emissions have fallen by more than a third. While emissions have fallen almost 60 percent across the 27 European Union member states.

Sky News, Financial Times, National Geographic

All told, forecasters expect emissions to fall more than 5% in 2020, the greatest annual reduction on record.

Scientific American

But this is short of the 7.6% reduction in emissions required each year to prevent the planet warming by 1.5 degrees celsius. 

UN Environment

The reduction in emissions has come at a severe economic cost. Globally it’s anticipated that GDP will fall by 3 percent.


In those markets hardest hit the economic impact is likely to be greater. In the UK, for instance, the Bank of England predicts a 14 percent decline in GDP this year. Across the rest of Europe the economy is expected to contract by 7.5 percent in the same time period.  While in the US, Deutsche Bank predicts that GDP will fall by 40 percent in the second quarter of the year.

The Guardian, Business Insider, CNBC

Given the severe economic damage caused by the crisis there is a risk that policymakers will forgo pushing any long term sustainability measures in favour of a quick economic bounce bank.

 In China, for instance Beijing has sought a quick economic fix and invested in many profitable but also polluting industries since the economy reopened. This includes approving more coal-powered plants in the first three weeks of March than it did overall in 2019. 

BBC News

While in the US, the $2 trillion relief package carries no environmental stipulations 

The Guardian

Other regions are taking a different path forward. In Europe, for example, there is talk of establishing a $1 trillion European Green Deal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

European Commission 

A more sustainable future is up for grabs

Building a sustainable future won’t happen with significant change. It’ll require innovation, bravery, and adaptability from governments, businesses and individuals to push society forward in a sustainable way. 

The question is, can we take advantage of the opportunity in front of us to reset and build a more sustainable future? Or will we squander the chance and revert to the way things were before?

We invited several experts to answer this question and debate the future of global trade with us. Check out what they had to say.


About the Author

James Hayward

James is a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Tradeshift, focused on crafting compelling stories that provide supply chain professionals with unique insights and actionable advice on how to take their organization to the next level. A journalist by trade, James was previously the Global Editor at Treasury Today magazine.

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