Mapping sustainability in the post-COVID landscape

Governments and businesses around the world are re-evaluating their priorities as they work to ensure public health and economic security in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is sustainability in the face of climate change among those priorities?

It should be, says Dr. Thomas Trabold, head of the Department for Sustainability at RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS). He believes that realizing sustainability in the long-term means more structural changes in the way the economy operates, with energy, mobility, and production systems being critical levers. In this article, we sit down with Dr. Trabold to discuss the prospects of sustainability as the world recovers from crisis.

Read on for a quick survey of climate change in the post-COVID landscape ahead of an insightful Q&A with Dr. Trabold.

Before December 31, 2019

On December 2, 2019, Antonio Gutierrez, secretary-general of the United Nations, warned that the world is fast approaching “the point of no return” in its trajectory towards a warmer climate. His words echoed waning optimism that global efforts will take shape in time to limit the rise in the Earth’s average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the target set at the 2015 Paris Agreement (COP21) in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

All in all, 2019 showed little sign that a decades-long trend towards global warming was about to change. Two federal agencies in the United States called it the second hottest year on record. Russia, the world’s fourth largest polluter, committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement after four years of deliberation, but only as the U.S., the second biggest carbon-dioxide emitter, began the formal process of withdrawing from it.

Of course, not everything was a loss for sustainability in 2019. Italy announced plans to make climate change and sustainability compulsory subjects in its schools, the first country to do so. Meanwhile, the number of climate-friendly investment funds available to investors reached a record high, an important step for directing money out of high-impact activities like fossil-fuel extraction. The International Monetary Fund joined the World Bank in calling climate change an “existential threat” earlier in the year.

Then, on the very last day of 2019, everything changed: The World Health Organization was notified by the Chinese government of an unknown illness in the city of Wuhan.

A novel coronavirus—SAR-CoV-2—was identified as the pathogen for a new disease, COVID-19. So began a crisis that has left no place on Earth untouched by the pandemic, leaving a death toll of more than 500,000 people in its wake over the course of less than six months.

Climate change in 2020

Measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 have completely changed how we interact with loved ones, take part in public life, and work. In addition to health risks, the pandemic response has exposed most people to financial hardship. Economic shutdowns worldwide have fueled unemployment and threatened a global recession as business and industry were put to a halt. In an effort to soften the economic downturn, many hard-hit countries began to ease quarantine restrictions in early June. Yet by July a second wave threatened, with new record-setting surges of infections reported in the United States, Brazil, and India.

The cataclysmic event, despite everything else, offers climate scientists a chance to better understand climate change. That’s because the clampdown on nearly all economic activity across the planet has led to a severe, sudden drop in greenhouse gas emissions. One scientist characterized it as a “giant, global environmental experiment that has been done in a very controlled way.”

A global experiment?

The about-turn in global emissions has opened a window that researchers can peer through to learn more about how and why climate change happens. Conclusions based on emissions data from the lockdown period are far from final, but most analysts agree that the peak global drop occurred in early April. The lowest point being 17% below the total amount of GHG emitted in 2019, a cut of about 17 million metric tons.

Overall, the impact on the annual average of emissions for 2020 is likely to produce a 5-7% decrease from 2019 (assuming most economic activities resume to pre-pandemic norms). But even this would fall short of the 7.6-percent reduction that would need to happen every year for the next decade to meet the COP21 target. In other words, it took a voluntary shutdown of nearly the whole global economy, pausing even high-impact sectors like transportation, construction, and heavy industry, to just brush the bottom of the U.N.’s bare-minimum target.

Carbon Brief, a climate science news site, anticipated this bounce back of emissions early on: “Once shuttered factories reopen, commuters get back into their cars and flights once again take to the air, little will have changed in the structure of the global economy—and progress towards net-zero will likely be as slow as ever.”

What to change—consumer lifestyles or industrial systems?

As economies reopen in July 2020, people are returning to work or enjoying things that are no longer off-limits, like dining out or shopping. More energy is being used to power buildings and move people about. In the U.S., operating residential and commercial buildings—all the energy it takes to run them—accounts for 40% of all greenhouse emissions alone. That means even just reopening stores, restaurants, and other non-residential real estate contributes to a significant uptick from lockdown levels.

Emissions data from the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an imperfect case study for understanding what’s needed for mitigating (or even just preparing) for the effects of climate change. It shows the limited reach of climate policies that focus solely on changes in lifestyle at the consumer level. (Though such changes are indeed important.) We now see what cutting out air travel or other high-impact consumer activities looks like—freezing all consumption, alone, is not enough. This is a reality check, as some commentators have noted, pointing to the need for governments and industry leaders to commit to far deeper systemic changes through technological innovation.

Rebuilding ailing economies is fraught with challenges. But this is also a rare moment. As Dr. Trabold describes in our interview below, it is one that could offer incredible opportunity for realizing more sustainable and efficient energy, transportation, building, and industrial systems.

Sustainability after COVID-19: A Q&A with Dr. Thomas Trabold

Dr. Trabold’s primary research focuses on the development of alternative energy technologies, including hydrogen, bio-fuels, and waste-to-energy processes. He teaches courses in the fundamentals of sustainability science, sustainable energy systems, sustainable mobility systems, and green chemistry.

Q: Some observers of the COVID-19 crisis have put forward the idea that the pandemic has served as a “magnifying glass” for better understanding sustainability policy, even uncovering new opportunities. Do you agree with this view? If so, what lessons do you think can be learned from the pandemic moving forward?

A: The COVID-19 crisis has certainly uncovered new opportunities for shifting to more sustainable practices and policies. Perhaps the biggest impact has been on global supply chains, suggesting that we should rely to a greater extent on local resources in achieving economic growth that is more resilient to larger societal changes. In this sense, the pandemic response may provide hints into the changes required to become more sustainable and resilient as we witness the expanding impacts of climate change.

Q: Economic lockdowns across the globe saw a massive cut to greenhouse gas emissions associated with consumption and transportation, dropping by 17% in early April. Yet the level of carbon dioxide in the air is its highest level in three million years. Is this drop only a blip or do you think there will be a long-term impact to CO2 levels?

A: The experiences of COVID-19 will make people and corporations think about their own patterns of resource use and consumption, and there may be some small reductions in CO2 emissions going forward. However, once we get past the current situation, there will be pressure to rapidly return to pre-COVID levels of economic activity. Therefore, long-term impacts will require more structural changes in the way the economy operates, with sustainable energy, mobility and production systems being critical components. Beyond minimizing net greenhouse gas emissions, it is also likely that more effort will be needed to achieve negative emissions through carbon capture and sequestration, and GIS is active in advancing technologies that can help in this effort.

Q: How important are changes in consumer behavior to achieving sustainability, both in terms of resource use and lessening the impacts of climate change?

A: Changes in consumer behavior are key to achieving sustainability, because what happens in millions of individual homes adds up in a big way. For example, it is well known that food waste generated at the household level in the U.S. exceeds that generated on farms, in food processing plants and consumer-facing businesses like grocery stores. We need to do a better job of educating consumers on how their individual activities and decisions impact climate change, while offering them alternatives that have both environmental and economic benefits. As we often say in the GIS sustainability department, a new product or service that is much more expensive than the incumbent cannot be sustainable because it won’t have a market.

Q: Most commentators have framed how governments are responding to coronavirus in the context of systems-level readiness. They draw a through-line from this crisis to preparedness for the impacts of climate change. Yet the damage to the economy will likely force decision-makers to focus on short-term gains like job creation. How can researchers working in less well-known areas of sustainability appeal to policymakers and businesses during this time to ensure their investment in solutions that may not produce immediate economic results?

A: We can do two things to better appeal to policymakers and businesses to invest in long-term sustainable solutions. First, we need to do a better job of translating important sustainability principles and research outcomes into terms that are understandable by a broader audience, beyond the academic community. Secondly, we should actively involve community partners in our research activities so they see that they have a stake in the outcomes and can actually influence the way in which research is conducted. For example, I am now working with residents and businesses in Henrietta, New York, (where GIS is based) to develop a local composting facility that may result in job opportunities and additional revenue for the town. Individual citizens with a passion for sustainability can help activate government agencies and get the attention of key decision makers in local government.

Q: Restaurants, school cafeterias, and other large-scale eating establishments were closed for months. Is there data available yet indicating whether this has led to a drop in how much food is wasted by consumers? Has there been a noticeable drop in the amount of organic waste going into landfills? Or has that generation just shifted to homes?

A: I am not aware of the availability of specific waste data, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that waste generation has been elevated due to COVID-19. For example, with the widespread disruptions to global food supply chains, farmers have not been able to get their products to market, resulting in dumping of milk and crops rotting in the fields. This loss is occurring while people in many major cities have had to wait in long lines to receive food donations. This clearly indicates that our food supply chain fundamentally lacks efficiency and resiliency. We also need to think of food waste more broadly to include associated waste streams like packaging. While more consumers have been cooking and eating at home, many have also been using restaurant take-out services that often involve significant amounts of disposable containers and plastic utensils. 

Q: A circular economy depends on a predictable flow of waste into different revalorization processes. Do sudden shifts in existing consumer behavior like we’ve seen in the pandemic pose a risk to the viability of circular solutions?

A: In my opinion the trend toward a circular economy will not be significantly impacted by short-term changes in consumer behavior. Businesses are getting the message that re-use, recycling, and remanufacturing make economic sense, and they need to minimize waste to survive long-term. In the food sector for example, many companies are now finding opportunities for generating value-added products from waste that previously ended up in landfills. The trend will continue toward establishing “biorefineries” that convert diverse organic waste streams into many upcycled products, and, when done at a community scale, can result in job opportunities and local economic development.

Q: Has the pandemic opened any new research opportunities for you or other GIS faculty? Have new applications of past research emerged?

A: The biggest outcome of the pandemic has been in highlighting and validating the research we do at GIS. We are now witnessing the importance of considering the environmental, economic, and social impacts of our business practices, and really thinking through how disruptions that occur at a global scale translate to impacts at a local level. We clearly need to think more seriously about the social impacts of our economic systems. How can food be wasted on a massive scale while people living at the margins of the economic system don’t have enough to eat?

Q: The term “new normal” is used often to describe the post-pandemic situation. Do you think this is a useful or accurate term? Why or why not?

A: “New normal” is just a buzz word, and not very useful because it doesn’t put the situation in a temporal context. Perhaps “post-COVID” would be a better term.


Deep-Dives Climate Change


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About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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