About seven million people are killed by human activities generated air pollution every year. The current model of modern society is unsustainable. Looking through a COVID-19 lens provides us with an amazing picture outside, showing some innovative pathways on how to live in harmony with nature, i.e. a new-modern society.
Immense disruptions to all economies around the world and ways of living for billions of people in all continents of the Earth caused by COVID-19 pandemic punctuate the unusual year 2020 in history books. COVID-19 battered the health care systems of countries, and supply chains of products and services leveraging the globalized world. Moreover, COVID-19 exacerbated other medical risks too due to the disruption of supply of medicines, devices and allied services. Contrary to these devastating effects, the COVID-19 pandemic had positive outcomes in terms of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, depletion of natural resources, and climate change. Satellite imagery confirms the reduction of NOx, SOx and other pollutants in all cities of the world. Global efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 have led to reduced economic activity and an improvement in air quality. Manufacturing led by cement, steel and heavy industries emitted less owing to low demand. The aviation sector contributed less greenhouse gas emissions due to decreased air traffic volume, both passenger and cargo. Land transportation caused reduced pollution due to reduced personal vehicle mobility and lockdowns. The aforementioned led to reduced power and energy consumption. Overall reductions in emissions is estimated to be around ten percent.
COVID-19 provides an opportunity to rethink everything humans do. Humans brought upon themselves the COVID-19 pandemic by disturbing nature’s ecological balance via excessive food and resource consumption led by population explosion. Infectious diseases expert Dennis Carroll estimated that there are 1.67 million viruses on planet Earth. Fifty percent of them have the potential to infect humans owing to increased frequency of interactions between people and pristine nature. Notable examples of zoonoses include malaria, dengue, avian flu, swine influenza, Zika, anthrax and rabies.
About seven million people are killed by human activities generated air pollution every year. Moreover, the pollution induced effects on human health and damage to Earth's ecology are evident, thus compromising the sustainability of future generations. The current model of modern society is unsustainable. Reversing the clock and going back to pre-modern society built on fulfilling just the needs of humans is not realistic. Sustaining the modern society built on fulfilling the needs and wants of humans requires out of the box thinking. In the current climate of COVID-19, companies are struggling to survive on top of challenges in industry 4.0 or digitization of products and services. How will they be able to think about sustainability while their worry is about resilience, and make the necessary adjustments to their business for the long term? Sustainability has tended to be a secondary priority for many industries and especially SME businesses. Now faced with business survival and viability concerns, what is the status of existing sustainability initiatives in companies and across industries? How has the pandemic affected existing initiatives and longer-term targets, plans and ambitions on the sustainability front? How can organisations get back on track with regard to their sustainability ambitions e.g. are there synergistic business-led propositions that can serve these aims? What can countries do in terms of sustainability, a circular economy and the Paris agreement to decarbonize while growing shrinking economies and rising employment opportunities?
Using a COVID-19 lens, let us examine opportunities for decarbonisation while not compromising the modern ways of living and economic growth so as to build a new-modern society (Seeram Ramakrishna, Circular Economy and Sustainability Pathways to Build a New-Modern Society, Editorial of the Drying Technology Journal, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/07373937.2020.1758492). Globalization is a causality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries and companies will shorten the supply chains and value chains. Globalization will take on newer forms, relying more on digital technologies and the internet. This will be facilitated by yet to emerge innovations in finance and commerce. COVID-19 has had unexpected effects on the food industry. The convenience food has strongly entrenched and spread to more parts of the world. Clean meat is touted as a solution to zoonotic diseases associated with current methods of producing meat from animals. Clean meat is made from plant based, cultivated cells. Hence the carbon footprint is lower than animal sourced meat. However, in some sense the clean meat is akin to genetically modified organisms as it involves selective breeding and hybridization. Human biology adapts slowly to changes which includes food and nutrition. Critics will argue for slow and careful introduction of clean meat to the mass population. Therein lies huge opportunities for innovations, technologies, new jobs and new pathways of economic growth while caring for the Earth. The importance of safe water and its adequate supply is highlighted by the COVID-19. Sustainable futures lie in zero-waste water innovations and technologies. Companies and communities will save money by embracing zero-waste water technologies. Billions of surgical face masks were used as personal protection against the spread of COVID-19. They are designed for single use and disposed of as waste. They are made from plastics derived from the petrochemical raw materials, and hence non-degradable in nature. The single use plastic wastes have been identified for their pollution of marine ecology and subsequent negative effects on the food chain and human health. Science, business, standards, and policy innovations are needed to replace the petrochemical derived plastics with degradable bioplastics derived from the renewable sources. Designing products with end-of-life considerations and life cycle engineering opens up opportunities for economic growth and new jobs while improving the quality of the environment.
The energy sector is also affected by the COVID-19. Oil futures went into negative. It is an opportune time for governments to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and invest in renewable energy infrastructure as long-term nation building. Energy businesses need to diversify and build grid level storage and balancing. Perhaps, governments and companies together can accelerate the electrification of transportation. To happen, new jobs and economic growth in vehicle design, manufacturing and digitization must occur, as well as charging infrastructure. The hydrogen industry has had wings for some time. It is critical to realizing the Paris agreement and future zero emissions and a decarbonised economy. Investors and banks need to employ new business models and investment strategies. COVID-19 transformed shopping and brought almost the whole of humanity to online shopping. Online shopping for groceries and food deliveries are on par with electronic goods and accessories. Similarly, on site work has moved to teleworking, and education has moved to online learning and assessment. The aforementioned caused a massive surge in the global usage of digital infrastructure. Digital services for virtual meetings, online learning, telemedical diagnostics, government services, eCommerce, grocery deliveries, e-banking, and entertainment all experienced unprecedented growth in demand. The hyper scale data centers with their 24x7x365 resilient operation, are the heart of digital transformation. Looking into the coming decade, the introduction of 5G will further accelerate the digital transformation era with its clear alignment with Industrial 4.0, in which real time data and automation will power more of the industrial world. However, the consumption of environmental resources that are critical to data centers are becoming increasingly scarce. Hence, triple zero (carbon, emissions, waste) sustainable approaches and a circular mind set are musts for Data Center companies to realize bottom lines and effectively support UN SDG goals to tackle climate change.
Clear messages emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic include, the digital transformation is a necessity to keep society running; mental health is important for the general well-being and productivity of a person; and a healthy living environment is a basic human right. The circular economy vision, decarbonisation and sustainability efforts to mitigate climate change thus create opportunities for sustained economic growth and the creation of new jobs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led all of us to rethink our current ways, and given impetus and determination to transition into a sustainable new-modern society.