Wednesday 1 April 2020 7:17 am

Covid-19 might lead to long-term action on climate change

Luke Hobson is a carbon and sustainability consultant with RSK.

As greenhouse gas emissions plummet due to the commercial standstill caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there remains a glimmer of hope that at least one positive may arise from this terrible situation — we may yet manage to slow the onset of climate change.

From reports of air pollution levels dropping between a third and a half in London to clean water being seen in the canals of Venice, there’s plenty of evidence that harmful emissions are reducing.

However, lasting change will only happen if emissions do not rise rapidly again once the Covid-19 crisis has passed, with businesses going back to their old ways while governments pump bailout cash into carbon-intensive industries.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Covid-19 is already forcing companies to embrace remote working. It is effectively pushing them to implement ambitious carbon management strategies, almost without their knowledge. As a result, the pandemic might actually be putting in place the systemic structures necessary for long-term emissions reduction.

The drive towards these structures will be given further impetus by new legislative requirements that come into force from today. Under the Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) guidelines, many UK companies will, for the first time, be required to publish a greenhouse gas emissions report together with their annual report.

This means that large privately-owned companies and LLPs will be legally required to produce an “emissions return” as well as a tax return. Companies listed on the main market of the London Stock Exchange have been doing this since 2014, but the new reporting regime affects approximately 11,900 additional companies.

As part of the SECR, eligible companies will be required to report their “value chain emissions”. These are emissions derived from sources that the business does not own or control, such as air travel. These value chain emissions are often the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and are exactly the types of emissions that are being largely impacted by Covid-19.

The two main changes which the crisis is forcing upon companies (homeworking and reduced carbon-intensive travel) are the ones that have the biggest impact upon company carbon footprints. One of the most impactful things that businesses can do to reduce their footprint here is to move towards videoconferencing – something they could implement more often now that they’ve become used to it.

And when many companies produce a report for the first time, they will see where their emissions came from between April 2019 and 2020. When they produce one next year, they will likely be astounded by the significance of the drop in their emissions as a result of Covid-19, and their unintentional shift towards less carbon-intensive working.

With the benefit of this insight, it is to be hoped that corporate executives will take a good hard look at their 2019-2020 emissions, compare them to their reduced emissions in 2020-2021, bite the bullet and “green up”.

This will be easier in the “new normal” of the post-coronavirus world. Many people will have found that they enjoy working from home and that they prefer it to spending their days, weeks and months in airport lounges and hotel rooms to fulfil “necessary” meeting requirements.  They will also find that they have the necessary systems in place for immediate remote working, including VPN, home computers, laptops, workstations and so on.

Previously, it might have been too big an ask for companies to simply switch to homeworking or restricted face-to-face business meetings. But now, having learned to make the best of a very bad situation, they might feel empowered to enforce these ambitious actions for the benefit of medium and long-term emissions reductions.

Moreover, by coupling this with smart investment planning and a mindful approach towards residual emissions, they will be well on their way to being the climate change champions that we all so desperately need.

It’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel in the current climate, but if lasting climate action is one benefit, then that’s at least something we can look forward to.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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