Every little helps? Lessons from lockdown on the impact of behaviour change on emissions reduction

19 May 2020

Should this be the new normal?

The world is currently in the grip of the largest drop in energy demand since 1945. Primary energy demand has fallen by an average of 25% in countries under lockdown as governments scramble to contain Covid-19, and weekday electricity demand patterns now resemble those previously only seen on Sundays.

Rate of change in global primary energy demand, 1900-2020 Image: IEA. https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-review-2020

The reduction in emissions is less drastic. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predict, at most, an 8% decline in emissions this year. Although this would be the greatest annual emissions reduction since World War II, and six times greater than what happened after 2008, it doesn’t match our loss of appetite for energy.

This pandemic has precipitated a dramatic shift in the way we live, work and socialise. Even the most fortunate in society are experiencing physical isolation, loss of independence and disrupted mobility. If this is what it takes to cut just 8% of our emissions, then it might seem like a price not worth paying. Indeed, if we are to cut emissions by 7.6% every year to 2050 in accordance with the 1.5oC Paris target, then should these drastically altered (and often miserable) lives be the new normal?

Simple answer?

No – the idea that the depression caused by Covid-19 is a ‘Good Thing’ for the climate is dangerously misleading, and could undermine support for action. The age-old trope of touting reductions in emissions or energy usage – indeed anything deemed a positive for the environment – alongside things like ‘global pandemic’, ‘great depression’ or ‘world war’ – anything that involves widespread human suffering – highlights how our thinking has to change. Tackling the climate crisis is about decoupling wealth and growth from emissions. In short, prosperous human existence doesn’t have to be bad for the planet.

Why should things good for the environment go hand in hand with things bad for us? A roe deer roams Buchanan Street, Glasgow, in front of a closed-down shop. Image: Twitter.

The power (and lack thereof) of the individual

What the 8% number tells us is that there’s a limit to what individual changes in behaviour can achieve. It reminds us that while collective individual action can undoubtedly make a difference, our impact is limited by the societies in which we live. Greater change means system change – but what does that mean?

It could mean technology change – getting serious about decarbonising the UK’s residential heating sector. It could mean reimagining our cities, so that ditching the car becomes easier as more space is reclaimed for cycling, walking and public transport. It could mean the support of circular economies, in which waste is minimised with resources kept in use longer through recycling and reuse.

Cities (this image shows Berlin) are reclaiming space from cars for cycling and walking, in what could be a locked-in change towards low-carbon lifestyles resulting from the pandemic. Image: The Guardian.

The death of fossil fuels and the continued rise of renewables

While fossil fuel industries are being pushed to the brink by a collapse in demand, the renewables industry is reported by the IEA to be the only part of the energy sector which has recorded a rise in demand during lockdown. Although past plunges in oil prices have provoked a rush in investment, the one happening right now makes oil an unattractive investment option. Coupled with the strength of the renewables industry, this could hasten the end of extraction.

If clean energy projects can be pushed through the pandemic and fossil fuel industries continue to regress – the removal of fossil fuel subsidies should now be a no-brainer – then it could turn out that peak emissions was 2019, and what we’ve seen over the past couple of months is the start of something much bigger.

The pandemic could mark a turning point from fossil fuels to renewables. Wind turbines shown in the same photograph as the cooling towers of a large thermal power station. Image: The Guardian.  

Coronavirus, climate change and the state

The pandemic has brought about changes that were unimaginable in the Before times. The UK government is spending £14 bn every month on its furlough scheme. With a Tory government reportedly ruling out a return to the austerity programme that left the UK so vulnerable to coronavirus in the first place, can we now expect this scale of state intervention in the future?

Something to remember is that the mandate for climate action is higher than ever. A 2019 poll commissioned by the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found that 80% of the British public are ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about the climate crisis. In a more recent poll conducted since lockdown, only 9% of Britons want to return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. Can we create a perfect storm of international collaboration, large-scale state intervention and public will to foster a new way of working for the world?

While the delay of COP26 and (let’s be optimistic) The Glasgow Agreement to 2021 has been a blow for climate action, the renewed appreciation of what the state can mean – not to mention the potential of having a different US president – could give us reason to watch what happens next with excitement, and hope.

The Armadillo and the Hydro: site of the declaration of the future ‘Glasgow Agreement’. Image: BBC News