Coupling resilience with sustainability to bounce back stronger from the coronavirus

One of the things the COVID-19 or coronavirus has demonstrated is that ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ have a lot in common but are not the same.

Over the past weeks, sustainability has been greatly enhanced around the world. Skies above China, normally thick with air pollution, have cleared. Worldwide, there’s been a drastic reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as industries, including the airlines, have ground to a halt. Mother nature has been given a chance to recover, during what we all hope will be a short-lived, though unprecedented disruption to our normal lives.

But this period has also shown that the world is severely lacking pandemic resilience. Our cities, communities, industries and public utilities are under tremendous pressure. And in many countries, our public health systems have reached, or, in the case of Northern Italy, passed the breaking point. People all over the world are living in fear and our economies are barreling towards recession.

It is impossible to overstate the urgency with which we need to solve this crisis. This requires all of our mental energy and resources, entrepreneurship and significant government action. Alongside the effort to stop the spread of the virus and develop treatments (and eventually a vaccine), we need to address the overwhelming economic impacts, bolstering business continuity to minimize the fallout.

With this single-minded focus on getting things back to normal as soon as possible, there is a risk that public and political attention for sustainability will be lost. Sustainability issues will likely take a back seat, as our physical and economic health are now the top priorities. But since making our institutions more resilient will definitely be a fundamental part of our economic recovery, we would do well to consider how to couple this with sustainability, lest we risk wasting the current benefits that have been created for the planet.

Some resilience measures very clearly go hand-in-hand with sustainability. Globalization has been an economic boon, but this crisis is driving home the point that perhaps we’re too dependent on goods from far-flung parts of the planet. So, stimulating supply of and demand for locally grown or manufactured goods can make communities more resilient while creating the sustainability benefit of reducing transportation related GHG emissions.

But things get trickier when we think about other issues like how we restore air transportation, while reducing the emissions from that industry. There’s no simple answer but this crisis presents possibilities: an opportunity to transition towards a more sustainable and profitable airline industry. To be clear I am simply highlighting the fact that now is the time for us to be thinking about these things. At a time when the airline industry is under pressure, there could be a robust discussion about addressing some of the ways the industry can strive to achieve better environmental outcomes. Perhaps it’s time to address price competition that makes it, in many instances, far cheaper to fly than take the train. Could the industry use this as an opportunity to enhance resilience and sustainability? What steps can be taken beyond the current efforts on biofuels and carbon offsetting? As we work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic we would be remiss not to be asking ourselves these and many other, admittedly, difficult questions.

For instance, how can we bring industrial production back online but reduce GHG emissions and waste?

Or, how can we control or regulate tourism in places that are being overrun with visitors, decreasing quality of life for residents or harming the nature?

And there are myriad other questions like these that we should examine now.

That said, there are questions for which we already have answers.

Can we drastically reduce business travel?

Yes, we can. We are clearly capable of working digitally and connecting using the internet. This applies in particular to internal gatherings but also to client meetings, many which are currently taking place digitally. (And shouldn’t we let these old-fashioned, in-person conferences finally go the way of the dinosaur?) In the past, some organizations and their clients have been reluctant to forego face-to-face meetings. Perhaps this crisis will teach us that many of those meetings can be done remotely. Businesses that reduce their travel will become more resilient and cost effective, as travelling less is better for employees’ physical and mental health and saves a lot of time that can we used for other business. This will also make the company more sustainable.

But those of us working in civil engineering have our own set of questions to ponder. One interesting topic to explore is how we can make our climate adaption efforts more sustainable. An example would be using renewable energy sources (solar and wind) to power drainage pump stations that protect cities from flooding. Another area is around making cities and communities more livable, which is a focus area for us at Arcadis. This includes making these environments more intelligent, more resilient and greener (sustainable).

But what does the coronavirus outbreak mean for how we design and plan public spaces, public transportation lines and hubs, buildings and the like? Should we be looking to make cities more compartmentalized to decrease interactions between people when in public and to allow local authorities to quickly close off areas in case of contamination? This might make a city more resilient to future pandemics but how would this affect the other aspects of livability and would this make the city more sustainable?

We all have much to consider.


Piet Dircke

Global Leader – Resilience and Water Management +31 (0)43 3523 392 Ask me a question
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