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Britons hope to keep sustainable habits beyond lockdown

Image credit: Sarandy Westfall | Unsplash

Britons are keen to continue with low-carbon lifestyle choices adopted during lockdown, according to research by the University of Manchester and Cardiff University.

Two wide-ranging surveys conducted by the UK Centre for Climate and Social Transformation (CAST) suggest that lockdown has upended people’s habits, with a move towards buying and travelling less, while also reducing energy use and cutting down on food waste.

The joint University-led surveys also suggest that climate concerns have increased during the pandemic, rather than subsiding. Particularly striking were people’s stated intentions to cut down on flying for holidays and the large increase in support for limiting flying to tackle climate change, the researchers said.

The researchers said the results suggested lockdown had disrupted people’s habits; they are now urging policy makers to seize upon this “unique moment of change”.

The two UK-wide surveys, outlined today in a CAST briefing paper, were carried out during lockdown in May with more than 1,800 respondents.

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, director of CAST, said: “Our surveys demonstrate that lockdown has provided the public with opportunities to try out low-carbon behaviours, like working and socialising online; spending more time on creative hobbies and gardening; buying less, and cutting food waste and many are keen to continue with these behaviours once restrictions are lifted.

“Particularly striking – given that aviation is a significant and growing contributor to climate change – is the desire to reduce flying for holidays and the large increase in support for limiting flying to tackle climate change.

“Consistent with other research showing the public strongly supports a green recovery from Covid-19, our studies highlight that policy makers need to act now to lock-in low-carbon routines that people have adopted during lockdown and avoid people slipping back into their old, high-carbon ways.”

The research – the first to draw together the impact of the pandemic on lifestyles and attitudes to climate change – found that more people intended to reduce the amount they fly for holiday or leisure, post-lockdown (47 per cent), than planned to increase it (8.3 per cent) or to go back to pre-lockdown levels (45 per cent).

The majority of people also intended to use public transport less after lockdown (52 per cent) compared to before, while only 4.9 per cent intended to increase their use.

Online food shopping more than doubled from 12 per cent to 25 per cent during lockdown, while a notable reduction in food waste was also reported (92 per cent to 84 per cent) supported by an increase in waste-reducing practices such as meal planning, freezing and preserving food.

Participants spent less during lockdown, with the most striking drop in spending on clothes and footwear (63 per cent spent nothing on clothing/footwear in March-May, up from 9 per cent spending nothing on it during the three months prior to lockdown).

On energy use, participants said they were more likely to turn off lights and unused appliances (27 per cent now, up from 21 per cent pre-lockdown saying they ‘always’ do this) and heat their home to a lower temperature compared to pre-lockdown (36 per cent now, down from 47 per cent pre-lockdown heating their home on old days to at least 20°C).

The researchers said they had expected to see a drop in climate concern because worries over one major issue can reduce concern over other issues; for example, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 there was a dramatic decline in belief in climate change.

This research has suggested the opposite: it found that perceived urgency of tackling climate change was higher during the pandemic than in August last year (74 per cent up from 62 per cent seeing it as an ‘extremely high’ or ‘high’ level of urgency). The concern about Covid-19 was only slightly greater than climate change concern (90 per cent versus 82 per cent) and much higher than other concerns, including Brexit at 57 per cent.

Furthermore, support for climate change mitigation policies, including measures to decrease meat consumption and flying, was higher during the pandemic (67 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively) than in 2019 (53 per cent and 67 per cent, respectively).

Dr Claire Hoolohan, Research Fellow at The University of Manchester, said: “Covid-19 may be the most profound disruption to lifestyles in living memory and the measures imposed to respond to the pandemic have fundamentally affected how people live, work, socialise and care for one another. With it, we’ve had space to examine the consequences of disruption, for example, the removal of temporal commitments like the school run and typical working hours.

“Our findings illustrate that the restructuring of everyday life that has occurred since lockdown was implemented has allowed low-carbon practices to take hold. However, people’s experiences have varied intensely. Though our research found that many felt aspects of lockdown were enjoyable, we also found that others experienced feelings of stress and guilt while trying to balance caring responsibilities and work.

“The question that faces society now is, how do we recover from Covid-19 in a way that means society is healthier, happier and more sustainable than before. This is a challenge that policy-makers, businesses, and other organisation must all rise to if we are to lock-in low-carbon lifestyles.”

The researchers will conduct follow-up surveys when lockdown is fully lifted to understand the longer-term impacts.

In terms of shaping opinions, recent research from EngineeringUK suggested that, for young people in particular, the Covid-19 pandemic is deepening gender differences in career aspirations in engineering or technology.

The pandemic also continues to have a major impact on previously robust businesses, such as aviation and rail travel. Airbus recently announced that it has cut production on its A350 wide-body airliners following tepid market conditions and a larger than expected loss in the second quarter. 

Meanwhile, UK railways – battered by the dramatic collapse in regular commuter numbers – are hoping that new technology could facilitate a recovery, with a £1.8m project now under way looking at how cutting-edge technology, such as automated monitoring systems, could streamline efficiencies for railway companies.

Other businesses are also adjusting to the new demands and economic realities dictated by the coronavirus crisis. For instance, a Welsh company, Hardshell, is set to begin manufacturing PPE at a new £1.5m facility in Cardiff. This will be the UK’s first domestic medical-grade mask factory.

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