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Humankind can thwart climate change, and the corona crisis proves it

We can change the world when there’s an urgent reason. Finnair’s Head of Sustainability Anne Larilahti reflects on what the pandemic teaches us about curbing climate change.

Anne Larilahti
Anne Larilahti

In his movie An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore tells a story about a frog that sat in a pot of tepid water that has started to boil very slowly. Another frog dropped in the boiling water jumps out immediately. The first frog was boiled to death.

The analogy is old, but right now it sounds fresh. We’ve been sitting in a pot of water for years, watching climate change proceed on, and ignoring it. The last few months have shown us that we can jump out of the pot if we really want to.

Al Gore’s movie was released in 2006 and while some climate action took place, the world kept getting warmer. In 2019, trailblazer companies were pulling the climate fight sled, and children were taking part in the action. Governments were limping in their decision making. The international climate change summit took place without any firm decisions to tackle the challenge. The water kept getting warmer and we kept sitting there, waiting for someone else to do something.

Suddenly we got thrown in boiling water. The corona pandemic happened when nobody was expecting it. Humankind was spurred into action like never before, and life changed instantly. We don’t yet know if the actions we took were right. But we do now know that we’re capable of fast action when we have a pressing reason.

As I’m writing this, nearly 300,000 people have died of Covid-19. It’s a very good reason to take urgent and even drastic action. Climate change is estimated to cause 150,000 deaths every year.

The climate crisis hasn’t disappeared

Climate change hasn’t stopped despite the Covid-19 rampage. It’s proceeding slowly and steadily in the background. As economic activity has ceased, emissions have also temporarily decreased. If we don’t pay attention to what we do next, the emissions will soon be growing like they were before the pandemic. The return to “normal” means returning to more emissions in this context

In all its awfulness, Covid-19 is also a gift.

It gives us the opportunity to reflect on what kind of a society we want to build. Even before the coronavirus, many influential business leaders were criticising capitalism in its current form and proposing a more sustainable approach from companies, governments and individuals. When we start rebuilding, it will be a little bit easier to weave sustainability into the framework of our society than it was previously.

Smart companies see sustainability as a competitive advantage

The corona crisis is making companies review their strategies and figure out how to meet the demands of the new situation. At Finnair, we introduced our new sustainability strategy just before the impacts of the pandemic hit us. Finnair’s sustainability strategy has not changed. Our goals and the ways we aim to achieve them remain the same regardless of the pandemic. We will need to reconsider some timelines and investment volumes.

Our goal remains to halve our net emissions by the end of 2025 from the 2019 level and to be carbon neutral at the latest by 2045. 

Our goals are very ambitious, and they go way beyond the industry’s general benchmark. Now that the world’s aircraft are grounded, we see that air travel has an impact on co2 emissions, but it’s not actually that large. Despite this, everyone needs to do their part. Your impact can be larger than your own emissions if you can inspire others to take action as well.

At Finnair, we believe that pioneering in sustainability will give us a competitive advantage in the future.

Collaboration between the public and private sector is the way forward

Companies should now spend time thinking about their stakeholders and impacts broadly, and with a long perspective. Achieving the UN sustainable development goals will require the contribution of companies as well as individuals, governments and nonprofits. At Finnair, we want to play our part in this.

Hopefully, we will also learn something from this crisis. When our industry starts recovering, we’ll be wiser than before, and we’ll be able to better control our emissions. In some countries, NGOs and environmental groups are calling for sustainability conditions to be included in any government aid. This is a good thing if it means positive change. The government of Finland is also supporting Finnair.

Finnair’s sustainability goals and strategy already go beyond the plans we’ve seen elsewhere. Our activities are also already in line with the government’s policy for sustainability goals.

One of the best learnings from the corona age is the understanding of how the public and private sector can work together for progress. The private sector has both the capability as well as the desire to use their resources in a way that benefits the wider society. The state can do its part to make sure that companies can operate in a predictable environment in a way that enables profitable business and job creation while producing societal benefit.

Never underestimate the power of an individual

When we’re facing a concrete threat and the guidelines for avoiding it are clear enough, people generally want to do the right thing. And not just the right thing, but more. People have a strong desire to help and be a part of the solution.

Social responsibility has been heightened during the crisis; especially the responsibility of the well-being of employees and customers. Employees who are feeling well will spread good things to others. Finnair employees have been helping Finnish kids with their homework online, and our cabin crew is driving groceries to people in need with our catering cars. Several employees are working in healthcare assistance during the temporary layoff.

Every one of those previously mentioned 300,000 or 150,000 data points has a sad story behind it; suffering families and a fight that was lost. To make something constructive of all the sorrow, we all need to look ahead with the wisdom we’ve now acquired. The coronavirus caught us by surprise, but climate change is not a surprise. We can prepare for it and thwart it.


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