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Looking Back on the Sustainability Positives of 2020

Please welcome Jai Hanjrah, a devoted team member of Sustainable Hamilton Burlington and the Sustainability Leadership Program who is our guest blogger for this month’s post reflecting on the sustainability positives of 2020.

While the world was occupied with the challenges of COVID-19, the positive sustainability advances in 2020 went by unnoticed. 

COVID-19 put a damper on the year, but the virus was not the only global issue that had to be dealt with in 2020. The ongoing battle with climate change did not get as many headlines as COVID-19 in 2020, but will stay relevant far beyond the pandemic. It looks like 2021 will be a positive year for the battle against COVID-19, and a silver lining of last year is that 2020 quietly provided many positives for sustainability in the battle against climate change, social impacts, and other important factors.

Coincidentally, some of the sustainability related positives in 2020 were a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. During the lockdowns, many cities around the world experienced improved air quality and lower water pollution. A direct example of this is the decrease in air travel in 2020. While it is unfortunate that many vacation plans were cancelled, the 96% decrease in air travel is very positive news for the environment.

Hopefully, this experience can be carried past 2020 and used as motivation for finding ways to limit activities that cause harm to our environment. This momentum in 2020 is forwarded by the ambitions set by governments. In 2020, Prime Minister Trudeau announced plans for Canada to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

These ambitions are beacons of hope for sustainability (and our futures) going forward. Hopefully, in 2050 we will look back at 2020 as the start of a great goal accomplished, rather than just the year we had COVID-19.

However, Canada was not the only country to set positive long term ambitions in 2020. Most notably, China pledged a 55% carbon reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. These strong, yet achievable, targets are a huge positive for the world as China has not had a clear decarbonization goal, something that has been lacking despite signing the Paris Agreement in 2016. China being the world’s largest carbon emitter makes this an even more impactful announcement.

Sustainability encompasses more than just environmental factors, and while 2020 had its fair share of social lowlights, the silver lining of this is that much needed attention was brought to these social topics. In 2020, we saw more attention brought to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement than ever before. As a result, it has become even more commonplace for businesses and societies to actively promote equality and inclusion. Equality has been long overdue, but hopefully the attention that 2020 brought to the cause can serve as a foundation for the coming years. 2020 can serve as motivation for a more socially sustainable future.

If we view 2020 pessimistically then we would see a lot of low points. We would see the hardships of lockdowns, social injustice, and economic downturn. However, optimistically we can view the hardships as warnings. Humanity has had to adapt during the pandemic, exposing us to the toxic behaviours we have previously deemed normal. Along with that, however, we have begun to realize the long lasting benefits of the changes that we are capable of making.

For example, many companies may have experienced that there are lasting benefits from remote work. If something like remote work becomes more commonplace it could decrease emissions from commutes. It would also allow for work opportunities beyond geographical limitations; more companies may be able to rely on employees from around the world.

In 2020, we have been shown that we have a lot to work on. We have to do better socially, economically, and environmentally. 2020 had positive moments for sustainability and we need to use that as momentum for 2021. We can view 2020 as the wake up call that we answer in 2021 and onwards. Let’s build on 2020’s sustainability positives and make 2021 the light at the end of 2020’s tunnel!