The novel coronavirus crisis has been reminding us of one essential truth – we are vulnerable. For all its ingenuity, its resilience, its courage even, humanity has been humbled by a microorganism that has disrupted, even destroyed, many lives around the world. While we are still weathering the storm, we are also equipped with fresh insights on how to focus on resilience and position ourselves for a better and safer future for all.
The global pandemic has reduced human demands on nature – as in our ecological footprint - by about ten percent, largely due to travel reductions and construction slow-downs.
This massive shift pushed the date of Earth Overshoot Day, when consumption surpasses the ecological resources the planet can renew in the whole year, to August 22 or three weeks later than last year.
The shift is significant: carbon emissions dropped 14.5 percent and forest products harvest went down by eight percent. Forced through crisis, it is a far cry from the kind of carefully designed transformation we need to build a sustainable future. We continue to demand more from the planet than nature can provide, using as much as 1.6 times the available resources, or the equivalent of 1.6 Earths.
We can benefit from some powerful lessons. First, ignoring the ecological context in which we live poses a massive risk to everybody’s success; second, we are one biology, and our fates are interwoven; third, humanity can reverse the course on its ever-growing resource consumption.
While all our attention and efforts are geared towards recovery, this is our chance to make our economies one-planet compatible by shaping our decisions around resource regeneration, biodiversity, circularity and climate.
The recovery will succeed in building a better future only if it embraces the limits of our planet. We face a unique opportunity to re-shape our economy and society to be more resilient, inclusive, and collaborative, and to thrive sustainably. We need to ensure that we are building a far more resource-efficient infrastructure and economy that will allow us to thrive within the ecological means of our planet. Nothing less can deliver the kind of future to which all of us, especially the youngest among us, aspire to.
For example, greenhouse gas emission levels have been tightly correlated to human and industry activities – through travel, transportation, manufacturing, consumption practices, and energy generation. We need to break this link. Digitization is an essential way to create a better, more resilient world. With the right digital tools, data can be used in ways that lead to better decisions, more efficient resource use, and more significant achievements.
Digital buildings, for example, including retrofitted ones, can reduce energy consumption, increase building resilience, and increase the comfort of their occupants. Key to this is remote monitoring and operations, predictive and preventive maintenance, and advanced design. Our research shows that if all existing buildings and infrastructure in the world were equipped with energy efficiency technologies and renewables, we could push back Earth Overshoot Day three weeks. To put this into perspective, if we moved the date by five days every year, we will be back to one-planet compatibility before 2050, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.
For business models to succeed, they need to enable humanity’s long-term success, or they risk becoming obsolete. Good examples are circular business models through which profitability is delivered while keeping products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.
Humanity’s success is simply defined as the ability of all to thrive within the ecological means of our planet: in other words, one-planet prosperity. It can be measured: whether all can thrive can be assessed through the United Nations’ Human Development Index; the extent to which we operate within planetary constraints can be tracked with the Ecological Footprint. Combining both defines the safe and just operating space where people thrive within the resource budget of our planet. Businesses who can help their customers move closer to this space are the ones that will be needed ever more in the future.
One-planet prosperity is not just about doing well while doing good. It’s a necessity if we want to maintain business success, and resilience, in a world constrained by climate change and increasing resource and biodiversity constraints. It is about improving and sustaining humanity’s wellbeing within the ecological resource budget afforded by our finite planet.
Together we can move on from the COVID-19 crisis towards a future that ensures resilience and is workable for all, by design. A key ingredient is shifting the sustainability conversation from noble to fundamentally necessary. This can help unleash the groundswell for one-planet prosperity, the most viable strategy we know of. It surely beats one-planet misery.
Image credit: Jason Miller/Unsplash
Olivier Blum is the Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer of Schneider Electric, a company that leads the digital transformation of energy management and automation. Mathis Wackernagel is the founder and president of the sustainability organization Global Footprint Network.