June 5th was the “world environment day”. Unfortunately, we have no special reasons to celebrate this date in 2020. The world is in the midst of a heinous pandemic, which has already infected more than 5 million people and killed more than 300 thousand. We may claim that similar outbreaks have occurred in the past and that the current one is not as lethal as previous ones like the Spanish Flu, which killed 20 to 50 million people one hundred years ago. But that is an easy and mindless rhetoric.

As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his “Uninhabitable Earth”, we should expect the so called “plagues of warming” to become increasingly common as a result of global warming. He cites a staggering figure of more than 1 million unknown types of virus, many of which are frozen in the permafrost soil and ice that are melting with global warming. These soils are releasing ancient virus and bacteria that were dormant and are now springing back to life. It is therefore inevitable to establish a direct - or at least indirect, for the most skeptical - connection between climate change and what we are living today. And we should prepare ourselves to face these harrowing situations more often than ever.

I was astonished when I recently came across the results of a survey of attendees of the last World Economic Forum, in Davos, where the most knowledgeable and respected leaders gathered in January this year. Those surveyed did not point out infectious diseases as one of the top 10 most likely challenges for the world going forward. Let´s not forget that in January the outbreak was already spreading in Asia. How come the world’s best-informed leaders were simply not aware of this risk for the rest of the globe? This is a clear signal of the dissociation of politics and management from science. The same dissociation that will put mankind on the verge of the sixth mass extinction event of life on Earth, unless our civilization makes a radical re-orientation.

According to the IPCC (intergovernmental panel on climate change), human activity has caused temperatures to rise by 1ºC above preindustrial levels. If the temperature rise exceeds a threshold of 1,5ºC, it will unleash runaway feedback loops and a cascade of climate change events that will decimate the Earth´s ecosystems, altering life as we know it today forever. Yet few people in the world are even aware of this climate emergency. Even the world leaders, the same leaders that didn´t see COVID-19 coming in January 2020, seem to be irresponsibly unaware of the depth and severity of the inevitable consequences of the climate disruption.

That is the reason why we firmly believe this is the right moment, and perhaps one of the last opportunities, to rethink our business ethics. If something good could come out of this pandemic, it should be a new ethics for life on Earth, leading to radical new behaviors concerning our perilous impact on the environment. We notice that sustainability, as a framework that envisions a balanced approach for the triple bottom line, has miserably failed so far. Three explanations come to mind. Firstly, climate and ecosystem emergencies are complex phenomena that require a holistic approach. Not a segmented analysis like the one proposed by the triple bottom line framework. Secondly, sustainability has always struggled to “sit at the table”. Business organizations are mainly driven by operations, sales, marketing, finance and other traditional disciplines and resist giving sustainability the leeway it deserves. Finally, we tend to take sustainability as a set of best practices that are optional and follow a flexible timeline for execution. Not anymore, that timeline is razor-thin.

This is the moment to raise the tone of voice of sustainability. To consider sustainable development as an ethical imperative and not simply as recommendations or best practices that grant us some ranking positions in the lead tables of sustainable companies. We have to make sustainable business practices enforceable. We must take them with the same seriousness and punch that we do with our compliance and ethical guidelines. COVID19 is a wake-up call of a new ethics for life on Earth. We should not miss it. The “new normal” should be a “great reset” for the world.

Have a great and impactful week!

Miguel Setas
CEO EDP Brasil

This article refers to edition #39 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
Subscribe here to receive the weekly newsletter