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Even prior to COVID-19, Earth Day 2020 was set to be noteworthy as it marked the event’s 50th anniversary, however this year is even more poignant as ‘normal’ life is disrupted and we have time to consider issues that may otherwise pass unnoticed.

The pandemic-driven slowdown in economic activity is having an immediate impact on the environment with anecdotal tales of fish being visible in Venice’s canals and birdsong being more audible, supplemented by hard environmental data. EU CO2 emissions have fallen by an estimated 58%, as non-essential activity across the bloc has been suspended. 

Air quality across the island of Ireland has also improved with the EPA reporting a 50% reduction in NO2 emissions. Even if these changes are the result of temporarily reduced economic activity, at a minimum it gives us all a glimpse of the kind of world that we could have. Amidst the dark clouds of the loss of life and economic headwinds there are some causes for optimism for the world’s environment on Earth Day 2020:

Causes for optimism

  • Public awareness of climate risk and actions needed to address this risk is increasing, and has not been dampened by the global health crisis. This sentiment was well articulated by Emmanuel Macron in a recent interview, when he said “There is a realisation that if people could do the unthinkable to economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change”.
  • The negative economic consequences of COVID-19 will be severe and governments around the world will seek to stimulate economic growth as movement restrictions are eased. There is growing support for stimulus packages to be linked to environmental transition. A letter signed by 17 of the EU-27 countries calls for the European Commission “to look into elements of the Green Deal, including the European Green Deal Investment Plan, which can be pushed forward to boost green recovery and a just transition”.
  • The moves by institutional investors to green their investment portfolios are not likely to be dented in any material way, and while asset managers say that they will give some leeway in 2020, businesses must catch up and overall targets must not change. The world’s largest asset manager Blackrock, said that it expected companies to report emissions in line with TCFD, irrespective of the current pandemic.
  • Finally, the oil major Royal Dutch Shell has announced plans to reduce the carbon intensity of the products that it sells by 65% by 2050 (30% by 2035) and reduce emissions from its own operations, to net zero by 2050. This would be a noteworthy announcement at any time but for Shell to publicly commit at a time when oil is at its lowest price in history, shows that this energy giant acknowledges the irresistible forces at play.

Sustainable futures at KPMG

The KPMG Sustainable Futures team raises a toast to World Earth Day. While the current lockdown prevents physical events to mark this noteworthy anniversary, its symbolism and messaging remains as valid and important as ever, and we look forward to continuing to support our clients as they embrace the climate change and wider sustainability agenda within their own businesses.

Further reading