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How did digital adaptation during Covid-19 accelerate the possibility of a sustainable future?
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Sustainable Living

Boosting sustainability in a pandemic

Published on 5 October 2021

It has been six years since 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement to mitigate the effects of man-made climate change, and two since Greta Thunberg delivered her powerful speech at the UN Climate Change Action Summit. There’s no denying that worldwide sustainability efforts are imperative for maintaining a livable planet, but facts have shown that it is more an elusive dream than an attainable reality.

In 2019, the United Nations announced that efforts to mitigate pollution were far from enough to meet the 2030 net-zero goal. The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 further highlights that climate change is now worse than ever, with the year 2019 being the second warmest on record.

But while the Covid-19 pandemic devastated lives around the world, there was a short-term upside to the crisis: Its ability to let the world experience an alternate reality. One where organisations went digital and carbon emissions were at the lowest in recorded history. A reality where humanity leverages technology to solve the problem of sustainability.

How did digital adaptation during Covid-19 accelerate the possibility of a sustainable future? And what are the other ways technology can contribute to the net-zero goal? Simon Schillebeeckx, SMU Assistant Professor of Strategic Management, discusses post-pandemic efforts to fight climate change in his new interview with the Green Pulse Podcast.

How Covid-19 sparked the next wave of climate change awareness

“Our pre-Covid economic and industrial systems are both very extractive and follow the cradle-to-grave pattern,” says Asst Prof Schillebeeckx.

“The cradle-to-grave pattern refers to the reality that most of the products that we design and bring to the market are very hard to recycle. And once the products are used, they are destroyed and then thrown away.”

The problem with this system is that it disregards the fact that we live on a finite planet. By prioritising economic returns over all other goals, we have largely ignored the consequences of our actions, being (deliberately) blind to the destructive processes of this system.

With the lockdowns and restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, global economies were forced to slow down. This new pace allowed industries to reexamine business models and economic systems more critically. It became evident that the current system was no longer economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

Rapid digitalisation is key to green recovery

While many organisations were already undergoing digital transformation in the pre-pandemic era, there were others resistant to changing existing processes and systems required for digitalisation.

The pandemic, however, didn't allow organisations to dwell on their uncertainty for long. As Asst Prof Schillebeeckx puts it: “The Covid crisis allowed us to sit back and think a little bit, so we really had this moment of reflection. Governments and people started to think, ‘what can we do to get out of this crisis?’ And can we use this as an opportunity not to just get out of this crisis but to also address a much more existential and bigger crisis that we have been facing for a very long time—which is climate change.”

Notably, organisations not only used digitalisation as a means to recover and thrive in the new normal. They also leveraged technology to become more sustainable and to advance “green recovery”—reforms to take economies out of recession after Covid-19 that simultaneously combat climate change.

Ecommerce platform Shopify, for example, declared that they experienced a 29 per cent drop in carbon emissions when their 6,000 employees started working from home. And the United States Energy Information Administration reported that the community lockdowns reduced carbon emissions from transportation by 15 per cent.

However, digital sustainability isn’t just for remote work setups. It can also apply to all industries and in every aspect of our lives:

  1. Energy. With the help of advanced technology, SMU can now use solar energy to reduce its energy intensity by 30 per cent, despite the increase in student numbers.
  2. Transportation. With the invention of electric vehicles, people can now look at alternative modes of transportation that produce less carbon output. Countries like China have also realised the possibility of using electric vehicles as a mode of public transportation.
  3. Materials creation. Through biomimicry and biofabrication, we can develop technology inspired by mother nature that significantly reduces environmental waste. For example, we might soon invent a steel-like material made from spider's silk that's stronger, more durable, and needs fewer resources to make.
  4. Material extraction. Urban mining has allowed organisations to reuse already mined materials and thus decrease their dependence on the mining of virgin materials.
  5. Construction. Using the Mass Engineered Timber (MET) construction technology, SMU built its campus with eco-friendly, durable, and highly renewable materials.
  6. Infrastructure. The SMU campus has become a pioneer in green infrastructure by leveraging modern architecture and advanced technology to garner the Green Mark Platinum (Zero Energy) Award.

With the advancements humanity has achieved in technology, organisations can now implement sustainable practices in every aspect of their business.

Singapore: Future leader in global sustainability

When asked how Singapore is playing a part in achieving green recovery, Asst Prof Schillebeeckx replied that the city-state is already on the right track to green recovery. However, because of its size, Singapore’s global environmental impact will also be small. Thus, Singapore must not solely focus on its own sustainable transformation. It must also aim to be a world leader and show the world that net-zero is indeed attainable. And this is what SMU aspires to do.

It aims to be a pioneer in environmental sustainability and pledged to become one of the first campuses in Singapore to be a Net-Zero Energy campus by implementing solar panels, updating buildings, and using MET technology, among other things. The University is also the first in Singapore to launch a major dedicated to sustainability with the DBS-SMU Sustainability Initiative.

“Our generation is already experiencing climate disruption, but our grandchildren will undoubtedly live on a very different planet if we don’t rapidly take action to reverse not only climate change but also the biodiversity collapse we are experiencing,” explains Asst Prof Schillebeeckx.

“And this requires a fundamental change in the way we produce things. The way we think about economic growth and the way we live our lives.” For more information on what companies and individuals can do, Assist Prof Simon Schillebeeckx recently published a report extolling the importance of regenerating natural ecosystems and doing so through the intermediation of digital technologies. You can download the report here