Could a low-carbon future be part of the COVID-19 legacy?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to break unsustainable habits and foster lower-carbon patterns of behaviour.

The pandemic has disrupted lifestyles and behaviours in all areas of society. The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation (CAST), has undertaken research to examine the impact of the pandemic on the UK public’s lifestyles and routines. The centre is a global hub funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Researchers have focused on:

  • behaviours that have significant impacts on climate change, such as:
    • travel
    • food
    • product consumption
    • energy use
  • how climate-relevant attitudes, and policy support, have changed.

The research was conducted in May 2020, during lockdown restrictions, and in October 2020, when the restrictions had been lifted and the tier system was in place.

Sustainability related routines

The May survey revealed that the pandemic had created an unprecedented moment of change. While there was a diversity of experience, substantial changes in sustainability related routines occurred with:

  • reductions in waste, travel and consumption
  • a rise in low-carbon recreation actives
  • experimentation with alternative daily schedules.

Additionally, concern about climate change increased, with greater public support for climate change mitigation policies, including measures to decrease meat consumption and flying.

Evolution in public behaviours

The October 2020 survey findings suggested that there was an evolution in public behaviours and attitudes since May. As restrictions relaxed, consumption and food waste increased, but many people still avoided going on holiday, home working continued, and online grocery shopping levels remained high.

The research also indicated that once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, people still plan to increase what they do online and also reduce their public transport use and flying.

Climate change concerns remained almost as high as concern about COVID-19, and there was even stronger support for measures to tackle climate change than had been recorded in May.

These findings suggest that, while some of the earlier lockdown habits that served to cut people’s carbon footprints have not endured, others have.

While time and further research will reveal the extent to which these changes endure, policy could be implemented to enable and encourage low-carbon habits to be maintained. This is particularly important whilst support for ambitious climate change measures is strong.

Last updated: 13 April 2021

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