A “Triple T Transition” to a Sustainable Recovery

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

As countries continue to battle the insidious virus, a chorus of voices is rising up to demand fundamental changes in the way governments and industries approach global threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic downturn has highlighted humanity’s interconnectedness, as well as its vulnerabilities. This painful period has also put into stark relief the failure of policy and strategic decisions to adequately respond to major global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. Stimulus measures adopted over a decade ago in response to the global economic and financial crisis created unhealthy path-dependencies in transport and energy.

As countries continue to battle the insidious virus, a chorus of voices is rising up to demand fundamental changes in the way governments and industries approach global threats. Yet many governments have missed the chance to embed sustainability into the stimulus packages adopted in response to the latest international crisis.

Yet there are some bright spots. Based on the proposal of the European Commission, European leaders agreed on a recovery instrument of a total of 750 billion euro to support investments and reforms that also facilitate green and digital transitions.”

In Asia, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources of Malaysia has announced the fourth round of its large-scale solar programme, designed to offer 1 gigawatt worth of tender contracts to help reactivate the country’s economy. South Korea intends to spend the equivalent of more than $63 billion on a “new deal” package that will expand the country’s digital infrastructure and services and promote a green economy.

While these large-scale government commitments are critical, they must be complemented by forward movement across sectors. Following are three fields of action that can create win-win options for economic prosperity and social resilience, while connecting different levels of policy. We call this a Triple T Transition that encompasses changes in the way we approach textiles, transport and technology.

Textiles

The pandemic has made many of us question our consumption habits, including purchase of attire. While consumers have in recent years grown more conscious of the negative social and environmental impacts of fashion, the ongoing crisis could provide a turning point for the textile industry, which generates 8 percent of greenhouse gases produced annually.

In late May, Gucci announced that it was reducing the number of its fashion shows from five to two annually, and that it would move to seasonless collections. Elsewhere in Italy, Vogue Italia declined to use any photo shoots in its pre-pandemic January 2020 issue to make a statement on sustainability. The magazine explained that scrapping the shoots greatly reduced travel and electricity use in preparing the issue.

Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo has found a large global audience of followers seeking to declutter their lives, and in the process reduce consumption and create more space to think about what really matters.

These trends are part of an increasing set of initiatives that will better align fashion with eco-conscience clothes shoppers. Designers are experimenting with environment-friendly materials to create inspirational products that use fewer resources. Germany’s “green button” label certifies green and fair textile products.

A report issued by McKinsey last year revealed that more than half of the fashion industry’s players want the majority of their products to be made with sustainable materials by 2025. Sustainability is being woven into the process for dressing the world.

Transport

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), transport is responsible for about a quarter of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Road vehicles account for nearly three-quarters of transport CO2 emissions. The crisis has accelerated the change already taking place in this key economic sector.

This year, sales of petrol-powered vehicles have dropped, while use of bicycles and e-bikes have surged in popularity. Bikes are traffic-beating transport options and offer recreation and fitness outside of gyms, which closed in many places. During the pandemic, many used bikes as an alternative to public transport, which they avoided due to the close physical proximity of others.

As lockdowns drove vehicles off the streets, numerous cities — including Berlin, Bogotá, Budapest, Montréal, and Seattle — installed bike lanes to improve road safety and reduce pollution. Many of these bike lanes will remain after the pandemic subsides. Rental bikes and scooters, operated through smartphone apps, have become common in many medium-to-large cities.

According to a new IEA report, the number of electric cars on the road is expected to reach almost 10 million this year. Investment is being made in the infrastructure to accommodate these vehicles — such as public charging stations. Hydrogen-powered and electric public vehicle fleets are being rolled out in more jurisdictions. These developments will help to reduce urban air and noise pollution.

Technology

The crisis has spurred greater use of technologies like those that have enabled white-collar workers to perform their duties at home. Remote working has been a necessity but will remain in widespread use after the pandemic, leading to less commuting, reduced business travel, and construction of fewer office buildings. However, attention must be given to minimizing the negative social impacts of working from home.

The lockdowns that emptied urban landscapes of activity have inspired thinking about smarter, safer, and healthier ways to organize a city. Data processing, software apps and machine learning are being applied to traffic management, parking, service delivery and utilities, as well as to the maintenance and repairs of infrastructure.

The search engine Ecosia, which donates the vast majority of its profits to nonprofit organizations supporting reforestation, has gained greater traction and, in March, was included as a default search engine option for Google Chrome in 47 markets. Telehealth and other virtual services (like coaching, therapy, music lessons, and exercise routines) have boomed during the crisis.

Smart technology is also boosting the circular economy by helping businesses close loops, implement more efficient processes, minimise waste, promote longer lives for products, and lower transaction costs.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a large human toll in the form of lives cut short, or disrupted by illness, the destruction of small companies, and joblessness. The impact of lockdowns on global emissions for the entire year will likely be modest, which highlights that systemic change in different sectors is needed (including energy, water and agriculture). But the blindfolds have been removed, allowing us to see what previously we thought impossible — new ways of living in greater harmony with nature.

We now must build on the momentum to sharply reduce frivolous consumption, carbon emissions, and destruction of habitats. Investing in a Triple T transition can spark a green economic recovery and also, hope.

I co-authored this commentary with Dr. Kira Vinke. It was originally published on 17 August 2020 on the website of the Observer Research Foundation.

Author of Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption

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