or the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way we live, impacting everything from how we work to how we socialise.
One of the few positive outcomes from the pandemic has been that many people have become more conscious of their carbon footprints. In April 2020, a poll by Ipsos found that 71 per cent of people in 14 countries felt that climate change was as serious a crisis as the pandemic. In july 2020, a survey by green energy provider Bulb found that more than a third of the UK public lived more sustainably during lockdown. Meanwhile, a US survey conducted by the Boston Consultancy Group at the same time found that 70 per cent of people were more aware of their environmental impacts than before.
“I think many people at home have a newfound appreciation of nature and their local environment,” a WWF spokesperson tells The Independent. WWF’s CEO, Tanya Steele, adds that this year marks the beginning of a “critical decade” when it comes to taking action against the climate crisis. “It’s never been more important for people to use their voices – their own power – to speak up for nature and show leaders why they should care,” she says.
It goes without saying that spending more time outdoors can have a major impact on one’s relationship with the environment. “One of the things we have all noticed is the importance of our green spaces,” environment minister Rebecca Pow tells The Independent. “I’m encouraged to see more and more people using them to connect with nature, which is beneficial for both mental and physical health.
The environmental benefits of lockdown have been clear to see, too. In April, reports emerged of wild animals coming out of hiding and roaming around the suddenly empty streets. Dolphins were suddenly spotted in the Boshprosu, Istanbul, one of the world’s busiest marine routes, while wild boar roamed the streets in Haifa, Israel. Closer to home, reports noticed a major uptick in sightings of bats, bees, and squirrels in 2020 in the UK compared to the previous year.
Other benefits were noted in the form of reports that air pollution had fallen by record amounts in countries around the world.
But how did we become more sustainable as individuals during lockdown? And can we keep it up once restrictions lift? Here are the climate lessons we learned in lockdown.
It’s no secret that leaning towards a more plant-based diet can have a hugely positive impact on the environment. Not only do roughly14 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities come from livestock, but a study published in Science in 2018 that listed the environmental impact of 40 major foods found that the top nine were all animal products.
Within just a few weeks after the first lockdown, reports emerged that millions of Britons were cutting down on meat and dairy, while supermarkets reported a surge in demand for vegan products. Meanwhile, The Vegan Society found that one in five Britons have cut down their meat consumption during the pandemic, while 15 per cent have reduced their dairy intake. Then, in January 2021, the organisation’s annual month-long veganism pledge, Veganuary, reported its highest ever number of sign ups: 500,000.
There are several reasons why people might have been drawn to veganism in lockdown. “For some, it’s because their usual food choices haven’t been available in the supermarket, for others it’s been a cost-saving exercise,” a spokesperson for The Vegan Society tells The Independent.
“However, I think more than anything, the pandemic has brought health to the forefront of people’s minds and we’ve suddenly become a lot more aware about what we are eating, where it’s coming from and how it’s making us feel.
“Consumers are becoming more conscious and ethical shoppers with many keen to source plant-based and cruelty free alternatives.”
The pandemic has put paid to international travel for the best part of the last year.
The mass grounding of flights during 2020 saw CO2 emissions from aviation go down by approximately 60 per cent, according to the Global Carbon Project.
Instead of jetting abroad for warmer climes, Britons embraced the staycation during the summer months, with one luxury lodge specialist Hoseasons reporting a new booking every 11 seconds in June after the prime minister lifted restrictions on overnight stays. Meanwhile, Hoseasons’ sister company, cottages.com, reported a 455 per cent rise on year-on-year bookings.
But beyond holidays, due to restrictions that called on Britons to stay within their local areas, we also stopped using trains and cars to get around as much, favouring walking and cycling instead – bike sales increased by 63 per cent during lockdown.
As a result, in London, traffic pollution fell by up to 50 per cent during the first lockdown, one study found. Meanwhile, data from the London Air Quality Network, which is run by King’s College London, found that air pollution fell substantially across UK cities in March 2020.
Professor Alastair Lewis, from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York, explained at the time: “This is primarily a consequence of lower traffic volumes, and some of the most clear reductions have been in nitrogen dioxide, which comes primarily from vehicle exhaust.”
With the hospitality sector closed for much of 2020, Britons ate at home more than ever before. While this has resulted in a major economic blow to the industry, there are some environmental benefits to cooking and eating at home more. Namely that it gives you more control over the prevention of food waste, which the non-profit organisation Friends of the Earth cites as one of the biggest issues with regards to the environmental impact of our food.
Friends of the Earth estimates that more than 10 million tonnes of food is binned in the UK each year. And many of the things individuals can do to combat this come from eating more at home i.e. recycling your own food waste, composting, and using your leftovers. You can read more about food waste prevention here.
Additionally, eating at home gives you more control over where you source ingredients from. This means you can choose to buy seasonal produce that has been sourced locally as opposed to that which has been flown in from abroad, thus cutting your carbon footprint even further.
Data from purchase intelligence platform Cardlytics also found that meal kits and grocery boxes saw a huge growth in sales during the pandemic – spending on DIY meal kit companies, including Hello Fresh, Gousto and Mindful Chef, grew by 114 per cent in April 2020 compared with the previous year – which also reduces food waste given that the kits provide consumers with the exact amount of ingredients needed for a particular recipe.
We have yet to see whether the pandemic will have a lasting impact on whether we eat at home more, but research from Mintel found that more than half (55 per cent) of people are already planning to cook at home more post-Covid compared to before.
Shopping less – and favouring pre-loved fashion
One of the many ways we’ve become more sustainable is through our fashion choices. In 2020, clothes sales dropped by 25 per cent, marking the biggest drop in 23 years, according to ONS figures. This is not surprising considering we had so few opportunities to socialise last year and non-essential retail was closed for much of 2020.
However, some of us did turn online for our fashion fix – and when we did, we regularly opted for pre-loved clothing. In 2020, the secondhand shopping app Depop reported a 200 per cent rise in traffic year-on-year, with its turnover doubling globally since 1 April. Meanwhile, eBay reported that it had sold 1,211 per cent more pre-worn items in June 2020 compared to 2018, noting an additional 195,691 per cent spike rise in sales for secondhand designer fashion at the same time.
Another eco-friendly fashion habit that emerged over the last year is DIY fashion. Remember the TikTok crochet trend that emerged last year as a result of people trying to recreate the multi-coloured JW Anderson cardigan worn by Harry Styles? How could you forget. It proved so popular that Anderson himself eventually released the pattern so that people could recreate the exact cardigan at home. “Crafts bloom when people are stuck at home,” Abby Glassenberg, president and co-founder of Craft Industry Alliance, previously told The Independent.
Involvement in local community groups
Another way that the pandemic has made us more sustainable is simply by more people joining local community groups that are dedicated to fighting the climate crisis. Speaking to The Independent, Friends of the Earth says they’ve noticed a major uptick in the number of people joining local groups.
Alasdair Roxburgh, director of communities and networks at Friends of the Earth, told The Independent: “The biggest, and most important, change we’ve seen in environmental action over the past year is how people have come together in their communities to support one another.
“In a little over a year since we launched them, there are now 250 Climate Action Groups in communities across the country. The amazing work done by mutual aid group, councils, local businesses and more showed the power and speed of change that can happen when communities work together locally. This has definitely carried over into action against the climate crisis.”
You can see the non-profit’s full list of Climate Action Groups on its website, which features a tool that allows you to type in your post code and find the nearest one to you. Different groups have different priorities.
For example, in Newcastle, one group has petitioned the government for safe cycling, and in Newbury, they’re campaigning for paper bags in their local Tesco. Meanwhile, in Ilkley, a group is campaigning for local people to switch to banks that don’t invest in fossil fuels.