Over the last six weeks, the dramatic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world has been a rude wake-up call. This is a stark reminder that the cost of dealing with the consequences of a high impact event are much higher than the cost and effort of being proactive to protect against it. This realisation is our opportunity to prepare for the next looming crisis linked to climate change.
Why do we miss the obvious clues?
Our world is fast-paced and swamped with vast amounts of information. Most of us can only manage to focus on our daily routines and, more generally, on short-term horizons. Even companies and politicians, meant to have a longer-term vision, are forced to think in reporting seasons and election cycles. The silver lining of COVID-19 is that it has given some of us time to reflect. And when we take the time to look at the information we have at our fingertips, it is amazing the insights it can give us on the actions we should take.
We had warnings about the likelihood of a viral pandemic occurring, including predictions from preeminent personalities like Bill Gates, but the warnings about the occurrence and implications of climate change are much stronger. We’ve now experienced what a single disease pandemic can do to our world in a few short weeks. Imagine the impact if the very ecosystem in which we live falters or collapses? We simply cannot afford to wait for climate change to have devastating outcomes before we take action.
What lessons can we draw from the COVID-19 pandemic?
A lack of long-term focus forces us to deal with the dramatic consequences of an event, rather than proactively managing it ahead of time. And reactive measures are nearly always far more costly and disruptive than proactive plans. COVID-19 has shown us how bad the consequences can be for people and the economy. Similarly, it has been easier to ignore climate change impact for decades as a distant and uncertain risk.
With time to look into the science and data supporting the impact of climate change on our world, it is amazing to see how strong consensus is when compared with controversial climate change denial headlines. There is overwhelming evidence that climate change is real. The remaining uncertainties are only how fast and severe the consequences of slow, or no, action will be. Regrettably, the predictions are getting worse as time goes by. We simply can’t afford to ignore climate change any longer.
Unfortunately, a big challenge with addressing climate change is that it is an incredibly complex problem with no clear or simple solution. Few politicians and companies have been willing to address the issue because it won’t give them the short-term wins they tend to need. And the complexity means no single person, company or country are likely to be able to solve it. So, there will be no “vaccine” to protect against the damage from climate change, but we already have a set of “medications”.
What are some solutions to address climate change?
The great news is that, more than ever, we have the tools to analyse information and prepare solutions to help prevent climate change. We have unprecedented levels of data to help us understand where the problems lie. Increasingly, we can use sensors to gather more data, to do real-time monitoring and to control things remotely. We have the technology to, almost instantaneously, analyse large, complex datasets to draw fact-based conclusions and quickly adjust our actions.
In many cases, these simple steps of gathering, analysing and acting on data can remove significant inefficiencies and waste that will drive cost down, increase productivity and make businesses more profitable. Such solutions require some work and capital upfront, but the case is so economically and environmentally compelling that it is hard to understand why there is any hesitation aside perhaps, from the short-long term time dilemma or a lack of priority to change things if they are not broken.
For example, building operations represent a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions (up to 28 per cent depending on the calculation). Two solutions that can each create savings of more than 20 per cent are generalising the use of LED lighting and using the Internet of Things (IoT) to monitor occupancy, temperature and key air conditioning equipment in order to improve operating efficiency.
There are so many different climate change solutions that exist and are proven but need to be deployed at scale. Renewables are the cheapest form of energy and are already widely in use; electric cars are reducing in price and waste-to-energy plants are cost competitive. That’s just naming a few obvious examples.
A lot of climate change solutions are more complex and tend to require changes in behaviours and long-term assets. There are many economically viable solutions which require replacing large plants with more efficient ones. In a lot of cases, it means more distributed facilities closer to the users, often smarter connected assets ‘thinking’ for themselves or semi-autonomous.
That is where the incredible suite of global stimulus packages can be used to really make a difference. But it requires the right incentives and frameworks to promote climate friendly initiatives rather than creating stimulus by re-hashing an old recipe. Governments incentivising upfront capital expenditure where there will be long-term emission benefits, promoting greater use new clean technologies with training programs and some risk sharing are some of the potential initiatives that could drive change. Some have called it the Green New Deal in reference to the New Deal post the Great Recession.
Focusing stimulus packages on educating, and financially helping, businesses to replace legacy assets with environmentally friendly ones will drive significant economic activity, increased productivity and help protect against the devastating impacts of climate change.
The importance of making a smart recovery from COVID-19
We have several “medications or treatments” available for climate change. But the reality is that no single one will work for all the different situations. Instead, we need to work together to bring global focus and collective action to drive a smart recovery from COVID-19 that will help reduce climate change. We have the unique opportunity to use the economic stimulus to create a smart recovery. Smart, by building the frameworks that will promote climate action and resiliency; and smart, by using core data and technologies that can deliver both efficiencies and less emissions.
Throughout history we’ve seen incredible stories of rebuilding and growth arising from terrible crises, creating new industries that yield long periods of prosperity. Now, together we have an opportunity to rebuild after the COVID-19 crisis’ by investing in sustainable assets, technologies and processes to help humanity avoid the next big crisis: climate change. Let’s all play our part in a Smart Green New Deal.