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COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis: Why it’s More Important Than Ever to Prioritize the Planet

Drawing parallels between the pandemic and climate change could be the key to a healthier and more sustainable future

Our current decade is the most critical for climate action. The UN Environment Programme report warns that unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 percent each year between 2020 and 2030, we will miss the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, and experience irreversible consequences such as species extinction, coral bleaching, and sea level rise, in addition to more extreme temperatures and weather. The World Economic Forum has declared it the Decade of Action.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in 2020, everyone was forced into a state of ruthless prioritization. To survive, we have all had to focus on immediate concerns – from saving lives and defeating the virus, to preserving jobs and supporting the economy. 

Amid the turmoil, I feared the climate crisis would drop off people’s radars, and in the beginning it did. But in the aftermath of responding to the acute crisis, I’ve seen people start to wake up and realize the need for immediate action, both in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and changing the trajectory of climate change. 

“The parallels between COVID-19 and the climate crisis have become more clear.”

Suzanne DiBianca, Chief Impact Officer and EVP, Corporate Relations

The parallels between COVID-19 and the climate crisis have become more clear. The pandemic has unveiled the fragility in our systems and shone a spotlight on inequality faced by many of the world today. Those with the least are being impacted the most by the virus, with low-income households more likely to have underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, or work in a sector that was shut down, making them unable to be able to do their job from home.Similarly, low-income households are impacted most by the effects of climate change — living closer to air polluters or areas more susceptible to natural disasters.

History has shown us that unless something disrupts our lives, we won’t pay attention to it. We cannot let this happen with climate change. It’s happening right before our eyes with Bangladesh underwater, the Arctic burning, and California’s spreading wildfires. We have no more time to wait, and we have the power to curb its effects before it’s too late. 

What role should businesses play?

I believe that businesses are one of the greatest platforms for change. And that we all have a role to play based on our unique skills and core competencies. For Salesforce, it’s leveraging our technology, our people, and influence to drive positive change. 

When a crisis arises, Salesforce takes action. I’m proud of how Salesforce jumped into action to help combat COVID-19, securing over 50m units of PPE for over 300 healthcare facilities, putting technology in the hands of our students and teachers, supporting local business through small business grants, and working to address racial inequality inside and beyond our four walls. 

As we face down a number of intertwined crises – from health and economic, to inequality and leadership – now is the time for businesses to reassess their values and think about how to become more responsible and sustainable, now and for future generations. We must ask ourselves where we can have the most influence, and act, so that we can start driving towards a healthier and more resilient future. Solving the climate crisis will address inequality and racism, strengthen the economy, and promote global health. But, the clock is ticking. Failure to address the climate crisis at the scale and speed necessary threatens the future of humanity. 

What 5 lessons can we take away from COVID-19 for Climate?

1. We must act now – the planet will not wait

The science community has been warning about the risk of a viral pandemic, and the risk of climate change for far too long. At our current rate of global greenhouse gas emissions, we will miss our 1.5 degree target and head into a 3-4 degree temperature rise. And while emissions are projected to be 7% less in 2020 than in 2019, the cost has been tremendous. As Bill Gates writes, “What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little.” We need to set bold and ambitious targets to drive change the planet needs. 

Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, we have an opportunity to combine a safe recovery with a sustainable recovery. The EU has led the way by proposing a green recovery plan, which will use digitalization to boost jobs and growth, secure the resilience of societies, and put the health of our environment first. 

As our governments work to develop economic recovery packages, we must build a stronger, more resilient and inclusive economy — one that ensures the long term health and wellness of citizens, job creation and puts the US on a 1.5 degree pathway to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. To that end, Salesforce participated in Lead on Climate 2020 to call on House and Senate lawmakers to build effective climate solutions coming out of COVID-19 

Salesforce has long been committed to setting ambitious climate targets. We laid out our Clean Energy Strategy, detailing how we plan to reach 100% renewable energy across our global operations by 2022 so that we could create a blueprint for other companies to follow and deliver a carbon-neutral cloud to all customers. We are aligning to the Science-based Target Initiative (SBTi), signed the 1.5 degree pledge, and are making bold emissions reductions and supply chain commitments, to inspire change beyond our four walls. In January we signed onto the initiative, a multi-stakeholder project to grow, restore and conserve one trillion trees around the world by 2030, helping build nature-based solutions and regenerating carbon-rich habitats. 

It’s actions like these that are urgently needed across all sectors to curb climate change.

2. We’re more resilient when we work together

When faced with unprecedented social conditions, people stepped up to the plate, embracing new working arrangements and personal hardships, reminding us that the human capacity for resilience is astounding. 

As climate change continues to advance and our resilience is put to the test, it is clear we will only come through this by working together. In 2018, Salesforce spearheaded the Step Up Coalition, an alliance of more than 25 companies dedicated to using their influence to collaborate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

We know we’re only as strong as the policies that govern us. That’s why Salesforce engages in policy work to fight for change the planet will notice. Salesforce is a signatory to the largest ever, UN-backed CEO-led climate advocacy effort to urge governments to incorporate climate action in their economic recovery plans. In May 2020, Salesforce joined more than 300 companies to call on Congress to pass a resilient stimulus plan and to build back better while working toward long term climate solutions.

 3. Adversity prompts innovation

Throughout the crisis, we have seen accelerated leaps forward in innovative solutions – from the quick development of ‘track and trace’ apps to help stem the spread of the virus, to tech to help us get back to work. Salesforce developed to help our business and community leaders reopen safely, re-skill employees and respond efficiently on the heels of COVID-19, as well as Salesforce Anywhere for the new all-digital, work-from-anywhere world. We also announced for schools — this technology is helping schools make smart decisions about when it’s safe to return to campus and better support students who are learning remotely.

Similarly, innovation is also key to taking on climate change. At Salesforce, we launched Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, a carbon accounting product to enable businesses to quickly track, analyze and report reliable environmental data to help them reduce their carbon emissions. We’ve seen global brands like Adidas sparking new solutions to plastic pollution through their collaboration with Parley, making shoes with plastic waste found in the ocean. Organizations like Arbor Day are also innovating—bringing their network of environmentalists online for moments in time that have always been focused in nature, like their Arbor Day at Home campaign.

Now is the time for all organizations to step up and use their unique superpowers and innovate. 

4. Digital is imperative

As a result of the pandemic, digital transformation is happening at hyperspeed. Seemingly overnight, every company was forced to go fully digital or shut down completely. The crisis massively disrupted industries and sectors. Travel came to a full stop, events are likely virtual for a significant period, and schools everywhere are grappling with how to bring students safely back to the classroom. The pandemic exposed the need for cloud-based solutions, and solidified the trend that cloud computing is here to stay.

“Now is the time to act, to reimagine the business of business, and to ensure that global economic recovery creates a new normal that betters the planet for all.”

Suzanne DiBianca, Chief Impact Officer and EVP, Corporate Relations

Digital transformation has already been cited as a key solution for tackling the climate crisis. DocuSign estimates its platform has saved 2.5 million trees and 2 billion pounds of additional CO₂, by helping businesses cut out paper. 

In 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched UpLink – a digital crowdsourcing platform to bring together stakeholders of all sizes to take on the SDGs including climate change, using digitization to reach a wider pool of funds and ideas. The product was the result of a one-year collaboration between WEF, Salesforce, Deloitte, and Microsoft, and was launched with the Ocean Solutions Sprint, which sourced over 50 entrepreneurial solutions from more than 15 countries in response to the most pressing challenges facing the ocean today and improved progress being made towards SDG-14: Life Below Water. The platform has now shifted to meet the Trillion Tree goal. With more than 250 submissions to date, I am excited to learn how the next generation of changemakers will address this global tree challenge

5. Leaders must be bold and transparent

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of transparency in building trust. Leaders are facing a trust crisis and are under public scrutiny like never before. Without a coordinated federal response, local governments, cities and businesses took responding to COVID-19 into their own hands, tracking infection rates and setting restrictions at a local level.

Similarly, strong leadership will be needed to navigate climate change, and we’ve already seen the power of local-level leadership when combating the climate crisis. Thankfully there have been plenty of examples in the business world worth celebrating. Global financial services leader Mastercard created the Priceless Planet Coalition, a platform to unite corporate sustainability efforts and make meaningful investments to preserve the environment. Meanwhile, Unilever has implemented an impressive Environmental Policy to ‘decouple their growth from their environmental footprint’.

The pandemic has highlighted which businesses are most engaged with all their stakeholders. These are the companies the world is looking to, and who are ready to show how we can make real changes to secure a sustainable, resilient future.

Building a better future

All these lessons present an impetus and opportunities for us to use our core strengths and accelerate our commitments to tackle climate change by acting now. Only through catalyzing global systemic change can we hope to reach a 1.5°C future, and every individual, institution, government, and corporation has an essential role to play in that transition.   

My advice is to think about what you do best as a company and apply that lens to your climate response. If you’re a transportation company, figure out how you can decarbonize distribution and logistics. I have to commend the auto industry for their bold thinking with some of the world’s largest automakers like Ford, making carbon commitments, even as they work to build back from the COVID crisis.

If your secret sauce is innovation, how can you catalyze more cleantech? Or, if you’re skilled at supply chain management, how can you help others bring forward transparency and efficiency that lowers the negative environmental impact to your procurement?  

Now is the time to act, to reimagine the business of business, and to ensure that global economic recovery creates a new normal that betters the planet for all. We need bold ambition — not incremental changes — to radically disrupt industries and create change the planet needs. 


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