The coronavirus pandemic is a human tragedy, and it may not have reached its peak yet. Many of us have lost loved ones; countless families have been torn apart by quarantines and lockdowns; and as the economic fallout spreads, millions of livelihoods have been taken away. Fighting the spread of COVID-19 is an absolute necessity, but there is a very real danger that our struggle to contain the virus will distract us from tackling a larger and much more existential problem for humanity: climate change. Even worse, this pandemic is turning into a global stress test that could create a world that will be less sustainable by design; during the past few months we have already experienced rising nationalism and protectionism, and the deliberate breaking of supply chains.
It does not have to be like that. We believe that our world can salvage a huge opportunity from this crisis.
That is only possible, though, if we do not attempt to ‘rebuild the old normal’, with all the failed structures of the past. Instead, we have to turn the post-pandemic recovery into an economic reset and make it the blueprint for a sustainable future. Only then we will be able to avoid the inevitable crisis fatigue that will hit us all once we are emerging from the pandemic.
During the past few months, human society has demonstrated an extraordinary resilience; people have been collaborating in ways we’ve never seen before. Across boundaries, scientists and healthcare providers have been constantly sharing information to understand the virus and find better ways of treating COVID-19 patients. In companies large and small, digital transformation was accelerated to happen in days, not years; employees are now working virtually together with an ease that few would have thought possible. And governments across the European Union have rallied and are now preparing for economic recovery.
It may sound cynical, but we must not let the economic shock of COVID-19 go to waste. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink how we invest in our future. We have to reprioritise and agree clear commitments that will allow us to achieve both: recover from COVID-19 and create a more sustainable and resilient economy.
Collaboration will be the key for achieving this.
Even before COVID-19, the European Commission had identified the European Green Deal as one of the pillars for Europe’s growth strategy. Europe may have to rethink and expand this European Green Deal to make it fit a post-pandemic world, but together with the Commission’s Digital Agenda it will allow us to craft a more resilient system that will help us weather future storms. We need European governments to understand the opportunity at hand and then collaborate to grasp it.
Civil society – from non-governmental organisations and campaigners to every single citizen – will have a crucial role to play. If society does not share this vision, if sustainable models do not gain trust and credibility, then new sustainable approaches will struggle to gain traction.
Last but certainly not least, business has its role to play. The four of us – alongside 380 fellow chief executives – are backing the Call to Action for a Sustainable Europe. Working through CSR Europe, we want to do more than issue declarations. We know: Europe needs a carbon revolution, and the electrification of final energy uses (e.g. transport) will be a key element of this decarbonisation. However, we must aim bigger: we must make sustainability a mainstream business model. Once again, collaboration will be key. We call on business leaders, industry federations and EU policymakers to join forces with us for a European Pact for Sustainable Industry.
Our objective: to ensure Europe is meeting its contributions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve this, we must bridge the economic silos in the European Union – across borders, industries and value chains. It can be done, and it must be done. COVID-19 has shown us that unless we cooperate, we cannot operate. Society ceases to exist.
We know that our economic model has to change. Now it is up to Europe to lead this change – or forever play catch-up.