COVID-19 showed us that we can respond quickly to a crisis, and that industry collaboration is an achievable goal. Looking ahead, we have an opportunity to redefine our planet’s future by setting more ambitious sustainability goals and shortening the timeframe in which we deliver on them.
2020 was an unprecedented year — filled with catastrophic climate events,
political turmoil, social
most notably, the
While this year has challenged government leaders, businesses and individuals
alike, it has also driven global leaders to overhaul traditional operations and
beliefs — and sustainability is becoming a growing priority on the executive
While conversations surrounding sustainability took place throughout the year,
September’s Climate Week
made an especially large impact on current efforts. The event took place under
the lens of this fraught global environment — with political and corporate
leaders coming together to discuss the overarching impact climate action will
have on society, and how to push progress in the coming year.
For corporate and government organizations to accomplish the ambitious goals
that were set throughout 2020, we must examine COVID-19’s effect on
sustainability and climate change efforts further; as well as discuss how
climate action must evolve on a global scale in 2021 and beyond.
The initial impact of COVID-19 on climate action
The onset of COVID-19 caused an immediate shift in global priorities. Countries
quickly had to refocus their efforts to ensure the health and safety of their
citizens, which took a toll on economies worldwide. With
estimates indicating the virus could
trim global economic growth by up to 6 percent this year, it would be reasonable
to assume that corporations would relegate climate action and global
sustainability strategies to the backburner. However, we’ve seen the opposite:
Major corporations across industries — including
to name a few — announced bold sustainability commitments in the midst of
So, what caused this influx of commitments? COVID-19 has highlighted the need
for strategic disaster preparedness plans — which in turn increased the urgency
behind preparing for climate change, resulting in minimizing COVID-19’s impact
on climate change. Mexico City serves as a prime example of this push
towards a sustainability transformation. After COVID-19 halted public
transportation operations in the city, bike usage soared. Seeing an opportunity
to both alleviate the risks of public transportation and decrease carbon
emissions, the government collaborated with key transportation stakeholders to
plan 130 kilometers of temporary bike
Looking at pandemic response efforts more broadly, successful companies and
governments used science and technology to model and test the spread of the
virus. Those insights were then used to quickly shift operations, and form
coalitions to implement necessary measures. As organizations begin to analyze
the efforts they took at the start of the pandemic, they should evaluate how
their strategies can be utilized across their operations — especially analyzing
how these levers can be employed to better plan and execute on climate-resiliency efforts. This concentrated effort will lead to more aggressive, data-driven sustainability and climate strategies.
While the events of 2020 were unexpected to say the least, they have only
accelerated the need for deliberate action against climate change. Looking
ahead, business and government leaders must implement several trends on a global
scale to create a more sustainable future.
Charging forward on sustainability transformation
The continuous conversations all year long made one point abundantly clear:
sustainability programs set organizations up for success. An ENGIE Impact
which surveyed more than 200 global executives, found that 75 percent of
executives believe that successful execution of a sustainability strategy will
provide a competitive advantage. However, only 30 percent of this group believe
they are successfully executing on their current strategies. So, how can this
ambition be translated into actionable results going forward?
First, sustainability must be at the core of every organization — and be driven,
communicated and championed from the executive level. Companies with early
success are those that have invested in tools to measure emissions and
understand risks, engaged with stakeholders, enacted change across the
organization, and are willing to take chances to innovate. Employees and
stakeholders are also holding companies accountable for this integrated
strategy. A survey conducted earlier this year by
found that 75 percent of employees ages 18-34 expect their employer to take a
stand on important issues, including sustainability and climate change.
Second, while we’ve seen an uptick in carbon-neutral commitments, to truly be
successful in combating climate change and reducing global emissions the
equivalent of 1.5° Celsius, we must pivot
from focusing on carbon neutrality to focusing on becoming carbon regenerative —
a process that restores, renews or revitalizes an organization’s own sources of
energy or materials; and integrates business needs with the integrity of nature.
This strategy demonstrates how sustainability is becoming strategically
integrated not only into a company’s operations but extending into its products
and services in a way that benefits communities. And some early adopters, such
— which announced its ambition to become a regenerative company during Climate
Week — have made great strides here.
Last, corporations must reframe their mindsets when it comes to collaboration.
The business world is understandably competitive by nature; however, to
accomplish a true sustainability transformation, organizations must break down
their silos and work together as a problem-solving group. This need for
collaboration also extends to private-public partnerships. For example, the UN
Global Compact recently announced a taskforce of
who will, over the next 24 months, convene to share ideas, develop new capital
investment frameworks, and provide recommendations to CFOs and finance
organizations to unlock private capital and create a market for SDG investments.
Joint efforts such as the UN Global Compact will help revolutionize current
sustainability commitments, and will drive change in a way that was once
From initial commitment to 365 days of effort and action
COVID-19 has shown us that governments and businesses can respond quickly to a
crisis, and that industry collaboration is an achievable goal. Looking to 2021
and beyond, we have a great opportunity to redefine our planet’s future by
setting more ambitious sustainability goals and shortening the timeframe in
which we deliver on those commitments. As we are closing the first year of the
Climate Decade, it is more than ever time to act, using lessons learned from the
pandemic response efforts, integrating sustainability into corporate
commitments and collaborating to make the change real. Our future can be
sustainable, if we move from talk to action.