COVID-19 & the Climate Change Emergency: recovery planning for a more sustainable future

When Greta Thunberg made headlines by refusing to fly, we could never have imagined that in such a short time we would find ourselves in the middle of a long-term experiment on the effect of carbon emissions on the environment. And yet, here we are. With much of the world on lockdown, air travel in the last two weeks of March was down by over 40% compared to 2019. Factories have shut down around the world. Car usage has dropped since the introduction of more dramatic quarantine measures.

And the planet is better for it. Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide has plummeted in the quarantine. Venice – posterchild for overtourism – has seen its canals running clear without the regular movement of water taxis across their surface and numerous ecosystems are flourishing.

Air satellite imagery of pollution levels in China before and during the lockdown

Satellite images courtesy of NASA

After years of debate and lacklustre pledges to reduce carbon emission, perhaps the silver lining to this global catastrophe is the irrefutable evidence that behavioural change really can make an impact. It’s evident that with decisive measures, we could turn the tide on global warming.

But are we seeing people take a step back from the climate change challenge? Across America and the UK, the ban on single-use plastic bags is being rolled back, citing fears that coronavirus would live longer on reusable tote bags (unfounded fears, incidentally, since current studies suggest the virus could survive for three days on plastic but hasn’t mentioned tote bags at all). China is proposing relaxed emission standards in a bid to boost the economy after COVID-19, while Japan’s climate change pledge ahead of COP26 has been criticised for its inefficiency.

We’re heading into a global recession - is there a danger that we lose focus on sustainability in favour of immediate economic gain?  Or is now the time to make real change, to take this global standstill and use it as a chance to determine how we can build more sustainable tourism and place economies. How do we take this crisis-driven change and transform it into intentional, long-term change?

Sustainable thinking as the core to a more resilient future

A lot of articles discussing recovery after COVID-19 refer to the ‘new normal.’ What will be standard practice after the pandemic? After the shoe bomber in 2001, we had to remove shoes while going through airports – will we now start having to pass sanitation check points to travel? Will vaccination cards be reinstated?

There will undoubtedly be a number of retrofits that we will have to adjust to when daily life resumes again, but is there also the opportunity to drive real change in our cities and destinations?  It’s been done before – the iconic Victorian Embankment in London is a by-product of the sewage system that was created after the cholera epidemic in the 19th century.

“We all want travel to return as soon as possible,” says Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, a global sustainable tourism charity aiming to help destinations manage tourism’s impacts, “but now we can ask: what kind of tourism do we want, and what does success really look like? DMOs have become more connected with their local communities during this crisis, and as they plan for recovery, they can continue that engagement process and introduce indicators that focus on communities and conservation.”

A sustainable approach brings other benefits too. Destinations that source supply chains locally, that focus on community benefits, that aim to protect the natural environment, tend to be more resilient in a crisis. Additionally, if you’re successfully geared towards better economic benefit for your community, then the recovery is easier too.

“This is a real opportunity to rethink yourself,” suggested Nanna Thusgaard, Senior Manager for Sustainable Tourism Development at Wonderful Copenhagen. “Sustainability isn’t just about environmental sustainability – it’s about creating something that’s durable and long-lasting.”

We mentioned earlier the “new normal” that people have been referencing, but we’d like to suggest that instead we should be aiming for an enhanced normal – not just responding retrospectively, but proactively working towards a more sustainable future.

Regionalising supply chains: the opportunity for investment promotion and economic development

Even before Patient X contracted coronavirus in Wuhan, there was a move towards regionalising supply chains. The ongoing trade war between the USA and China was slowly but surely redrawing the global map of business production. This trend will likely increase following COVID-19. China dominates global industry with more than 200 of the Fortune Global 500 companies having factories in Wuhan – as we’ve now seen, this reliance means that any major disruption puts global supply chains at risk.

Despite the apparent economic advantages of situating factories in China, companies will be re-evaluating their supply chains. Keeping factories closer to key markets will help make supply chains more resilient should a future crisis occur. And policymakers at both city and national government level are likely to put increased focus on encouraging local production – both to improve resilience, and because of the increased political attractiveness of policies seen as “bringing jobs back home”.

We’ve already seen many destination marketing and investment promotion organisations supporting their local private sector companies throughout COVID-19. With businesses rethinking their supply chains, good aftercare is crucial to support your candidacy for future investment. If we can predict more organisations looking to regionalise their supply chains, then economic development teams could be in a strong position to push to ensure that companies meet your environmental standards.

Take outdoor clothing retailer, Patagonia – over the years, the organisation has dropped suppliers who failed to meet their social and environmental standards. In the short-term, that’s had an impact on business growth and margins. But in the long-term? Patagonia lives its brand values and its customers will pay more for that. Destinations can learn from this – differentiate your tourism and economic offering by your values.  Developing and sharing this authentic voice is a trend we were already seeing across the market, but with climate change a growing priority for younger workers and travellers, it’s going to be crucial to the continuing success of your place economy.

Remote working: the opportunity for second-tier cities, rural destinations and great neighbourhoods

Like the diversification of supply chains, working from home was already a growing trend. With many governments now enforcing social distancing measures, much of the global population have found themselves working remotely. While we will undoubtedly move back to the office eventually, it has opened up new discussions about how future business might be conducted. The COVID-19 lockdown has shown that with virtual tools, many companies have been able to continue work largely undisrupted by the sudden dispersal of their workforce. With the efficiency of these tools now undisputed, it’s important to question the sustainability of our work habits. Do you really need to fly halfway around the world to meet with that investor?

Outside of the internal work policies of your own organisation however, there’s a huge opportunity for smaller cities or more rural locations, an area we will be exploring at our virtual City Nation Place Americas conference. While working from home is a reality that has been unwillingly thrust upon us, it’s likely that some workers will find that in many ways this suits their lifestyle. Once you’re working remotely and no longer need to commute, your priorities change around where you live. With a clear quality of life pitch, second tier cities and rural areas will be able to attract new residents away from the mega cities.

We’ve already seen increased community cohesion on a micro-level during the COVID-19 pandemic. Developing events and amenities with consideration of both residents and visitors as well as tourists will also create more resilient neighbourhoods and enhance the quality of life for your citizens.

Investing in more sustainable transport

Another key advantage of neighbourhoods is walkability. Around the world we’ve seen people moving away from public transport – it’s hard to socially distance when you’re packed like sardines on an underground train. Cycling in particular has seen increased uptake, with countries like the UK allowing bike repair shops to continue operating as key workers. 

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Bogota opened over 76km of bike lanes to add to their already comprehensive network of cycle lanes. Of that 76km, 22km were opened overnight by reconfiguring existing car lanes. New York City is making similar plans to install more bike lanes, along with several other major global cities. The immediate benefit is clear: it promotes movement and travel while still upholding social distancing. However, there’s a prime opportunity here to rethink transport policy – to permanently take space away from cars and give it back to pedestrians or cyclists, rather than returning to the same rush-hour commute when the quarantines are lifted.

How placemakers respond to the learnings from this epidemic could fast-track the creation of better urban environments to live and visit, which also support climate change goals.


Fear of flying and the future of aviation

Recent months saw a rise in ‘flight shame’, largely driven by Greta Thunberg’s climate strike. Will this survive our rush to travel again? Or could we be facing a new COVID-19 related fear of flying?

A recent Miles Partnership sentiment study showed that COVID-19 was the core factor impacting decisions to travel in the next 6 months.

Factors impacting decisions to travel in the next six months

Graph courtesy of Miles Partnership

In the short-term, staycations and domestic tourism will likely be the first route to recovery; it’s likely you’ll be able to holiday in your own country long before international travel is fully opened up. But COVID-19 could create deeper-seated concerns that supersede the desire for experiential international travel.

With the sudden deficit of travellers, airlines are struggling financially -  will they have the resources to continue researching sustainable travel solutions? Will those who reconfigure planes to allow more space per passenger, who continue to invest in new technologies to limit emissions, be favoured by those who return to flying?

Perhaps the key to reviving international travel more sustainably is to promote partnerships with airlines who are making that commitment to the planet, while also demonstrating that mitigating the environmental impact of air travel is a key concern for destinations.

Re-thinking KPIs for place branding and destination marketing

In the face of global recession, countries and cities alike are desperate to get their economies back on track. Bigger equals better and money in the pocket now is better than a distant environmental goal, right?

We think most place branding and marketing teams will recognise the importance of a longer-term plan.  And with that, destination marketing and investment promotion bodies are going to have to rethink many of the key metrics that they use - counting bed nights to determine success, for example, could lead back to over-tourism challenges and is a short-term metric, vulnerable to future crises. Many “destination marketing organisations” were beginning to reframe their role as “destination management organisations”: focusing on citizen feedback, reputational surveys, and broader metrics will allow more scope to factor in environmental impact and climate change concerns to planning.

As Jeremy Sampson says, Tomorrow’s tourism will likely be different in some way, and this is an opportunity to begin managing tourism differently as well, starting with the recovery period. This means prioritising investments linked to what your residents really value; strengthening local supply chains to stimulate job creation and diversifying products, services and markets for greater resilience against future shocks. It’s also a chance to really assess the social and economic burden that visitors bring, but smarter data systems and new skill sets will be needed in order to rise to this challenge.”

The key to creating sustainable, long-term change

There are a number of best practices that we can look to in this: Scotland is centring efforts on being a good global citizen; Costa Rica prioritises tourism that benefits communities and conservation first and foremost; New Zealand has embedded environmental stewardship both at a community and a governmental policy level. But to create sustainable change, every country, city and region will have to assess their place and develop a distinct and authentic response – and to ensure a balanced approach.

“Working with sustainability, a lot of people tend to focus just on the environmental part,” explained Nanna, “but I think this crisis really underlined the importance of taking a holistic approach, of including a triple bottom line. Especially now, we’re seeing the importance of social and economic sustainability.”

Perhaps rather than prioritising return on investment we need to be aiming for value on investment – and of creating that virtuous circle to drive long-term resilience. How this should be realised is open for discussion, but in the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risks Report, environmental concerns dominated the top long-term risks. It’s a challenge that we can’t afford to put aside for a later date.

Are you reviewing your recovery plans for sustainable growth and environmental impact? Not only would this be a key element of good global citizenship which will deliver reputational benefits, it will ensure that you won’t have to overhaul your strategy when concerned voices about climate change are again the loudest in the room.


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