The Covid-19 pandemic will pass, and relatively quickly, but life will never be the same, which may not be such a bad thing
Michael Liebreich – BloombergNEF
For a time the world will be in recovery mode, and then the time will come when life will once again feel normal. It may take two years, it may take four years, and it may be hard to believe right now, but it will come. Although it will feel normal, it will not be the same normality as we knew at the end of last year. Many of the new forms of behavior we adopt through necessity are going to prove sticky – and given that most of them involve staying at home or staying local, they are going to act as powerful long-term brakes on emission growth.
Over 500 million children are subject to school closures, with more lockdowns being announced every day. Before Covid-19, the technology for home-schooling was absolutely woeful. I expect it to improve quickly, to the point where the model of obligatory daily schooling and long holidays looks old-fashioned to the point of absurdity.
Video-conferencing software may already be better than home-schooling software, but it too has room for improvement, particularly multi-party conferences. Expect rapid innovation.
People are going to get so used to home-working they are going to demand it, at least for part of the week; and employers are going to get more comfortable offering it. Software could easily enable a massive shift of activity out of centralized locations. Why do you need to sit in a call center to deliver technical support? Can you really not supervise traders unless they are physically sitting in front of you? And are you sure your team finds your presence as inspiring as you think?
As for business travel, Covid-19 has entirely shut it down for the moment, and it will never be the same again. Every single conference at which I was due to speak in coming months has been postponed, with the organizers vowing to reschedule in the second half of the year or to come back stronger in 2021. My suspicion is that much of that won’t happen. Outside a few keynote sessions, most delegates prefer to hang out at conferences, drinking coffee and holding bilateral meetings. There must be a more efficient way to help build your networks than Brownian motion around the lunch buffet. I suspect in the next few months we may find it – and in the meantime we might even get some work done!
In fact, it’s hard to think of a sector that is not going to see long-term changes, all tending to reduce emissions: supply chains will be getting shorter; uptake of 3-D printing will be accelerating; countries dependent on long-haul tourism will be diversifying; food security will be moving up the agenda, and so on.
Healthcare is another sector that will see permanent change. For the past few weeks, it has been practically impossible to get an appointment with a general practitioner, primary medical care has gone mainly remote. Our phones are replete with sensors, it is not hard to add more – to turn them into ECG recorders, blood pressure or glucose monitors, hand-held cell scopes and so on. Then there is artificial intelligence, which could sit in on remote consultations as well as combing through digital data, and deliver enormously improved diagnosis, monitoring of compliance, and so on. By year-end, it will be clear that in-person provision of primary medical care should be the exception rather than the rule – not just because of infection risk but because it leads to better service, better record-keeping and better outcomes.
At the very least, the new familiarity with home-schooling, home-working and remote medical services will enable a tremendous increase in flexible working hours. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of the positive legacies of Covid-19 was the death of the rush hour? Think how much more cost-effective investment in public transportation would be if demand were flat across the day, rather than lurching from over-crowded to idle? And as we spend more time in and around our homes, won’t we start to demand that our streets are more pleasant, our parks better-maintained, our air cleaner?
Indeed you could go further: with the streets emptied of vehicles, and public transport a locus for viral transmission, what is to stop temporary diversion of road space to pedestrian areas and protected lanes for cyclists? Do it in such a way that signage and road furniture can be removed as traffic recovers – but you might find the temporary solution is popular enough to keep, leaving lasting improvements to our urban fabric.
Michael Liebreich is founder and senior contributor to BloombergNEF. He is on the international advisory board of Equinor. He is a former advisor to Shell New Energies.