Obviously not all countries will heed this call. The resolve to achieve net zero varies enormously across geographies, with only a handful of governments having enshrined the 2050 net zero emissions target in law.
The fear is that this divergence will only be exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, says Elliott Cappell, climate change and resilience director at WSP in Canada. “In resilience, disasters or shocks are described as ‘accelerators’ – they make everything move faster in whichever direction they were going; they also act as a magnifying glass showing us the stresses and cracks in society or business. COVID-19 is a huge shock and it’s accelerating the trends.”
In other words, for those who were already committed to carbon reduction, COVID-19 could spur them forwards, while for others, now juggling competing priorities, their focus will be on patching up more immediate cracks and stresses.
However, even in jurisdictions where cutting emissions is not as high on the government agenda, COVID-19 could still be a catalyst for change, believes Kieran Power, national lead – resilience and climate change at WSP in Australia. “The strong drive to cut carbon emissions among state governments and the private sector is not currently matched at a Federal Government level [in Australia], but the pandemic gives those advocating for a national net zero approach a lever to change the discourse. Our extensive wind and solar resources represent a significant area of competitive advantage; a push to net zero could provide a means of economic recovery.”
The US also lacks ambition at federal level. That’s not to say however that individual states that had been focused on cutting emissions pre-pandemic – as exemplified by the #wearestillin movement following US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – are less committed. “There is undoubtedly a notion of ‘build back better’ in states such as New York and California, but private entities will need to take an even larger role because state governments simply won’t have the money,” warns Michael Mondshine, director of sustainability, energy and climate change at WSP in the US.
A private-versus-public divergence is sharply evident in Brazil too. Sustainability ambitions following the 2016 Rio Olympics failed to translate into concrete actions, and the current government views environmental concerns as a barrier to growth, according to Paulo Mario Correia Araújo, president of WSP’s ECOLOGY Brasil. The government’s stance puts it at odds not only with some of its own agencies – not least the Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) – but also with some of the country’s biggest brands. Even as Brazil battles the virus, mining giant Vale recently committed US$2bn to fund initiatives to help cut its carbon emissions by 33% by 2030, as part of its plan to be carbon neutral by 2050. Cosmetics firm Natura & Co is another company whose carbon resolve has strengthened rather than waned during the pandemic, becoming one of the founder signatories of the Transform to Net Zero forum (see below).