The coronavirus crisis is the biggest shock in a generation. Historian Peter Hennessy has said that we will look back and divide history into “BC” and “AC” – Before Corona and After Corona. We are currently living in “DC” – During Corona. Utilities are working flat out on business continuity and resilience. But can we build a bridge through the pandemic to a more sustainable place on the other side?
We are still coming to terms with the new reality. It is too early to predict what may happen next week, let alone next month. However, the impacts of corona on sustainability and utilities – and how they deliver social, economic and environmental wellbeing – are already being felt.
Utilities have rightly been focusing on service resilience. Homes, businesses and the NHS are now absolutely dependent on secure energy and water services and digital communications. Companies have also rightly spoken of the need to support vulnerable customers.
More broadly, the shock of shutting down demand and supply has already had a profound effect on the economy and society. The temporary “nationalisation” of train companies and possible airline bailouts highlight how nothing is now off-limits. In this wartime footing, the relationship between the state, citizens and business is being redrawn; what works counts – not ideology.
The crisis is laying bare present-day fragilities for all to see. Should the reliability of essential utilities fail, or should they struggle to respond with sensitivity to spiralling customer debt among people unable to get support from a creaking welfare state, the prospect of fundamental reform may stay on the table in the long term.
Targeted support programmes, while vital, may no longer be sufficient. In the absence of radical measures such as universal basic incomes, there will be calls for intervention on household bills. Examples of poor corporate behaviour, or a failure to deliver public value, could tip the balance.
How long the relationship between companies and the state remains like this is less clear. What is perhaps more certain is the emphasis that is likely to be placed on critical infrastructure as we emerge from the pandemic to kick-start the economy. Coupled with an investor flight to certainty and the need to address the economic shock on employment, we could see significant infrastructure investment After Corona to boost GDP growth.
And here could be the rub. During Corona, we are already witnessing some improvements to the third dimension of sustainability: the environment. Emissions are falling and air quality is improving as activity plummets.
Extending infrastructure to crank up the economy After Corona will undoubtedly be an attractive proposition, particularly for those communities upended by the virus fall-out. However, it is vital to ensure that in doing so we don’t just accelerate another crisis: the climate emergency.
Rather than cling to business as usual, we need to ensure that During Corona and beyond, we start to ask how to reconcile our existing focus on GDP with the need to secure wellbeing in the round.
Stimulus packages to support post-crisis growth must future-proof against systemic climate risks. We must do things differently in the recovery, so that smart, green and sustainable become the new normal in procurement. The environment cannot take a back seat. Inaction on climate cannot be allowed to destroy the next generation in the way the virus is decimating older lives.
A fundamental change in mindset is needed. We need to make connections in people’s minds with the impacts of coronavirus and the chaotic and no longer abstract impacts of climate change, such as the recent devastating fires and floods.
Social innovations, and the connections being built up between generations as older people are in lockdown, such as grocery deliveries and telephone chats, may point the way, as might the conversations we all may have as we face our fears and ask what holds a civilised society together.
This is a massive cultural shift. But as we go through common life-changing experiences, social values change. The answers – to the nature of our essential utility services in the long term, who they are there to serve, how we fund them and what their true contribution is to a sustainable future – may be radical, not nudge.