Our rapid adaptation to lockdown life proves we can rise to the challenge of climate change

As 2020 began, who imagined that within a few months democratic governments around the world would be asking their citizens to stay at home for extended periods while businesses and institutions had to close their doors?

This presented a radical departure from the typical daily routine, and there was a high degree of uncertainty about the public’s tolerance for self-isolation and social distancing.

However, almost overnight, millions of people followed the government’s advice and stayed at home, finding new ways to work or study remotely and changing their shopping, eating and leisure habits.

For the most part, the public are not protesting in the streets or instigating civil unrest; they’re listening to the science, following the clearly communicated guidelines and staying at home.

Coronavirus Behaviour Change Stay At Home Gov Leaflet - Brighton Hove Energy Services Coop Blog - iMattSmart - UnSplash
The UK Government's clear communication concerning the need for lockdown has helped to ensure that millions of people across the country are following the advice and remaining at home. Now we have seen our capacity to adapt, can this help to achieve our climate goals?

Coronavirus Lockdown- an indication of our capacity for change

Without doubt, we’ll feel the consequences of the pandemic for years to come, but like all major life events we need to seek the opportunities for positive change it presents.

Crucially, while working through our grief and fear, rebuilding our economy and moving on with our lives once more, we mustn’t lose site of the fact that we still need to tackle that other great threat to life on Earth: climate change. This could be our now or never moment.

In effect, we’re living through an enforced, real-life experiment. We’re testing our capacity for behaviour change, our collective response to mass communication, and the effects of remote working, drastically reduced use of fuel powered transport and lower industrial production.

For decades we’ve heard that implementing the changes needed for our move to a net zero carbon society is too difficult, too expensive, too disruptive and unacceptable to the majority of people.

The changes wrought by the pandemic lockdown are far more extreme than the changes required for a net zero economy so, if we want to emerge wiser and well equipped for a better future we need to learn what it can teach us.

Coronavirus Behaviour Change - Commuter Cycling - Brighton Hove Energy Services Coop Blog - Matthew Waring - UnSplash
Many cities around the world are implementing policies to increase the uptake of commuter cycling once lockdown measures ease. As well as reducing the risk of a virus spreading quickly through packed trains and buses, this will also improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions. Photo - Mattthew Waring - UnSplash

Reconnecting with nature and appreciating what’s on our doorstep

It comes as a surprise that, providing their health and that of their nearest and dearest is good, many people are admitting to enjoying some of the consequences of the Coronavirus lockdown.

Lower traffic levels and the subsequent reduction in pollution mean the air is cleaner, bird song is easier to hear without the constant roar of vehicle noise and nature is reclaiming space in our cities and towns. The shock of potential infection also seems to have led to increased and deepened interactions with friends, neighbours and the wider community – albeit at a distance. We appear to be valuing mutually beneficial relationships more than ever.

Research in early April instigated by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission in partnership with the Food Foundation and YouGov confirms that the UK population has not only made rapid, radical lifestyle changes in the short period of time since lockdown began, but that 85% of those surveyed want to see some of the changes they’ve made continue after lockdown ends [1]. Just 9% want everything to go back to how it was before the pandemic started.

Anecdotally, it seems that people find the lack of social interaction most difficult to deal with. Thankfully, this is one aspect of the lockdown that wouldn’t be necessary in order to reach net zero carbon. In fact, community involvement and collaborative working is of great help when working towards our shared environmental goals.

Coronavirus Behaviour Change Nature - Brighton Hove Energy Services Cop Blog - Sarka Krnavkova - UnSplash (large)
The tremendous reduction of transport from road, sea and air has brought a return of nature to urban environments. Will such changes have a longer lasting impact on our behaviour? Photo - Sarka Krnavkova - UnSplash

Is now the time to seize a permanent transition to a more sustainable society?

Some might argue that the severe economic downturn we’ll face following the Coronavirus pandemic is not the right time to be calling for further major changes.

It’s also fair to point out the differences between climate change and a global pandemic. The effect of climate change on health is, at least initially, both less immediate and less obvious. In addition, the changes required to combat it are permanent. Would this make people more resistant to change, especially after a stressful period where they were deprived of much of their freedom?

Coronavirus has shocked us into a period of rapid transition and this might just make it exactly the right time for more permanent change.

In an interview with Carbon Brief, Leo Murray, Director of Innovation at Possible (a campaigning organisation focussed on climate change), highlights the importance of ‘moments of change’ in establishing new patterns of behaviour in the future. In particular, he sees potential for the global recovery from Covid-19 to leave radical changes in our travel behaviour [2].

Murray does, however, caution that research also shows that some transitional moments leave people overwhelmed and unable to make major behavioural changes. The economic and mental health impacts of Coronavirus could result in just such a situation if the fall out is not dealt with well by national and local government.

What might happen after lockdown?

The period after lockdown ends is a risky time, not just because of the threat of a second spike of the virus but also for the future success of our journey towards a net zero carbon economy.

In the short-term, people may want to increase their consumption of all the things they’ve missed during lockdown. We might see people driving more, travelling more (increased flights and cruises) and upping their appetite for the consumer goods we’ve gone without over recent months. Hopefully, any increase would be a result of pent up demand and wouldn’t last too long.

The real danger comes if the government decides to encourage high levels of consumption in order to stimulate our damaged economy with no regard to whether the goods and services consumed are damaging to the environment.

As the first countries begin to emerge from their lockdowns, initial indications are not too encouraging. Industrial production and transportation are rapidly ramping back up in a desperate race towards ‘business as usual’.

Will we see a surge in flights after lockdown? Travel restrictions have kept planes on the ground and threaten the future of the aviation industry. With airlines calling on governments for financial aid, the policy response to this carbon intensive industry will have major implications for global climate change targets. Photo - Isaac Struna - UnSplash

A net zero carbon alternative

Desire for a swift return to ‘business as usual’ is understandable but short-sighted. Rather than pumping money into outdated, fossil fuel powered businesses or propping up financial institutions investing in dirty industries, we need a government strategy fit for the 21st Century.

We need policies that stimulate the creation of low-carbon jobs and re-skill our workforce to fill them. The government should do all it can to make it easy for its citizens to make the right consumer choices.

Immediately following the global shock of the pandemic could be the ideal time to begin work on a shift away from our current, outdated economic models. These peddle perpetual growth and the supremacy of market forces with no regard for either the inability of our planet to sustain such growth or the welfare of the most vulnerable in our society.

We have an opportunity to move to sustainable and more equitable economic models which value and recognise the very things that are being appreciated during lockdown. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is one such model.

If this crucially important time in our potential shift towards a net zero carbon economy is not to be missed, every one of us needs to play our part.

We need to make our voices heard by those in power by writing to our MPs, signing petitions and, once the danger has passed, taking part in demonstrations. We also need to examine our own impact and take action to reduce our individual carbon footprint by changing our behaviour and making ethical choices about where we spend and invest our money.

While life has undoubtedly been severely disrupted, what we’re currently demonstrating is how resilient and adaptable our society can be when faced with a crisis. We can be confident in the knowledge that we are perfectly capable of adapting to the less severe lifestyle changes that are required if the world is to limit rising temperatures to 1.5oC.


[1] https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/04/finding-the-road-to-renewal

[2] https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/04/finding-the-road-to-renewal

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