Lessons on Resilience & Bravery from New Zealand’s Covid Response

How Sustainability and New Zealand’s Covid-19 border closures are connected

Right now, the world looks at New Zealand in awe, and that’s thanks to its highly effective pandemic response. Decisive action on border control after the outbreak of coronavirus limited the total number of Covid-related deaths to just 26 (the equivalent of 293 per 1 million people). It also means that our Kiwi friends can already enjoy a relatively normal life while we in the United Kingdom remain confined to a never-ending Netflix binge — although we can now see light at the end of the Covid-y tunnel.

But it’s not just New Zealand’s location at the ‘edge of the world’ that allowed the country to close its borders. The bravery to make tough decisions early enough was also key to its success. NZ is no stranger to bold choices though. For years now, it has been recognised as a world leader for its prescient commitment to regenerate critical ecosystems, part of which has meant a transition away from fossil fuels toward wind, hydro and solar renewables.

For example, in 2020, Aotearoa (NZ’s Māori name) derived 84% of its electricity from renewable sources — a figure that Jacinda Ardern’s Government seeks to increase to an incredible 100% by 2035. And it hopes to end many other polluting industries too, including industrial farming and fishing, which will result in better environmental and health outcomes.

New Zealand is still part of the global economy and has been hit by the shut down of tourism and the turmoil in global manufacturing. But its resilience and bravery were two big factors allowing the country to rapidly close its borders after the outbreak of coronavirus, confident of its survival in relative isolation. And these factors will help protect NZ in the face of any future outbreaks too.

Imagine the UK were in a similar position, willing and able to impose tougher curbs on the flow of people across our borders. Sadly, that’s not our story. Unlike “The Land of the Long White Cloud,” here in Blighty, we’ve seen 120,580 Covid-related deaths (that’s 1,770 per 1 million people). And current restrictions mean we will continue to gaze at New Zealanders with envy.

Taking the same example of electricity — in 2020, compared with Aotearoa’s impressive 84%, the UK obtained only 47% of its electricity from renewables. The UK figure does mark a substantial increase of 11% since the beginning of 2019, which isn’t to be sniffed at. However, if we harness the potential of renewable energy sources, we can write a better sequel for ourselves.

Just like NZ, Westminster is making the significant expansion of renewables a vital part of the UK‘s green economic recovery following the pandemic. Let’s not forget that the UK renewable wind sector positions us well to achieve this — the 11% increase in electricity from renewables, along with a drop in fossil fuel dependence of 2.3%, indicates we’re on the right track for greater energy independence and resilience in years to come.

Technology can really help us deliver our goals, especially Artificial Intelligence. AI’s ability to recognise patterns of usage, then react at lightning speed, is giving energy companies increased confidence to embed more renewables into national grids. For the last five years, AI has been changing the face of renewables, in part because we now have so much more data to analyse. For example, we have seen dramatic improvements by analysing weather data for better supply forecasting, optimising demand forecasting of energy consumption, and modelling complex datasets for financial investment decisions. With the support of AI, we can continue the upwards trajectory of renewable energy.

Leaders from within the green economy have also called for an improved Covid-19 financial package to facilitate accelerated progress in this area. Making use of fiscal stimulus tools for renewable energy would help us claw our way out from this public health crisis, better prepared to protect ourselves from another in the future, while simultaneously responding to our own climate and biodiversity crises.

Whatever we do, we need decisive action. I love EY’s approach of asking better questions because that will help firms looking to become leaders in renewables make brave and confident decisions. The outcome? More organisations switching to renewables and helping the UK become a decarbonised, sustainable economy that creates measurable, long-term value for everyone — just like NZ.

Ultimately, New Zealand is awesome, and not just because it’s where Lord of the Rings was filmed, but because of the reasons I’ve discussed in this blog. So, how about we try to be less middling and more Middle-earth?

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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