COVID-19 and changing social practices: implications for sustainable lifestyles

Claire Hoolohan, Research Fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, looks at how life post-COVID-19 can healthier, happier and more sustainable.

Without warning or consent, Covid-19 caused unprecedented disruption to everyday life, prompting a period of forced experimentation as people adjusted to new ways of living.

This forced experiment has given us a window to observe what happens when ordinary schedules – 9-5 work day, the school run, weekdays/weekends – are suspended. What was observed was the development of low-carbon habits as disrupted routines resulted in a range of benefits from reducing local air pollution to balancing the grid.

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? How can we rise to this challenge in order to lock-in low-carbon lifestyles?

Recorded in August 2020

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Lecture transcript

Climate change requires a rapid and fundamental transformation of society to improve sustainability of everyday routines.

However, so far unsustainable routines have proven pretty resistant to policies and interventions designed to reduce emissions. In contrast, COVID-19 caused unprecedented disruption in everyday life and prompted a period of forced experimentation as people in all kinds of different backgrounds have had to adjust to new ways of living.

As part of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation, we conducted a survey during lockdown to explore the impacts of COVID-19 on the UK public's lifestyles, focusing on activities that have substantial impacts on climate change. So, travel, food and energy use.

Unsurprisingly, our results show that people's everyday routines have changed in many different ways during this time, with some of those changes benefiting sustainable consumption and others not. For example, 35 percent of our respondents reported reductions in food waste in their households during lockdown and we also found an increase in waste reducing practices like batch cooking, freezing and preserving food.

When explaining these changes, people talked about how coronavirus restrictions had led to more time being spent at home and less spontaneity in daily life, allowing them to better plan their meals and also use the ingredients that they bought more effectively.

However, many people also describe more fundamental changes to routines that have occurred during this time and affected their shopping, cooking and eating habits. So, for example, in the UK, shopping in frequent but small shops - for example during lunch break or on the way home from work - is a common way to procure food for a household.

But coronavirus has changed that, with usual working practices put on hold and people no longer commuting to and from an office much. These sorts of findings signal the ways that consumption is shaped by wider trends that have been become ingrained: some throughout the 20th century, like commuting; and others relatively recently, like top-up shopping.

These are particularly interesting when we look at other emissions hot spots like rush hour and peak energy demand. Shifting the timing of energy demand might provide a range of benefits from reducing local air pollution to balancing the grid and enabling a more widespread use of renewable energy technologies.

However, many of the common approaches taken to time shift routines today aren't having an effect. They focus on individual action - things like time of use tariffs and smart displays designed to encourage people to use energy off-peak - and few strategies are being rolled out that affect the kind of broader time space of daily routines.

COVID-19 has given us a window to observe what happens when ordinary schedules, so things like the 9 to 5 working day, the school run, even the distinction between weekends and weekdays is suspended and many responders in this survey talk about how they've begun to experiment with different ways of structuring the time.

For example, flexible workers, office workers, who were previously stuck to a nine-to-five working day and commuted to and from an office, have now shifted to working from home, many of them with the need to balance child care at the same time, has led to a great variety in the way that people are structuring their daily lives.

Some people are taking much longer days with big breaks in the middle, others working much earlier and some later into the evening. This seemingly trivial re-sequencing of everyday routines - if it was to continue could deliver the types of time shifts sought after in demand management and lead to wider changes in the energy system that are needed to address climate change.

However, there's also a high chance that we could return to peaky practices if recovery from coronavirus prompts a hasty return to previous routines.

It's also important to recognise that for some people this period has been deeply difficult. People concerned about their loss of productivity or they're worried that they're not able to do their best for their dependents whilst also juggling working from home and if policies are to support continued experimentation with things like working hours, working days or indeed wider kind of structural changes to infrastructure and society, we need to design empathetic policies that recognise people's different situations and their different needs.

Bold demand management measures are needed if we're to substantially reduce emissions and if we are to address climate change, and COVID-19 has forced experimentation in a way that's allowed us to observe what happens when routines become deeply unsettled.

It's therefore created an important set of conditions within which to understand societal transformation and discontinuity in everyday practice that we don't often get a chance to observe. The question that remains for me is how as a society we recover from coronavirus in a way that holds space for the low carbon routines that people are reporting having developed during lockdown.

Research and further information

The research discussed in this lecture was undertaken as part of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation, seeking to understand from past and present examples how and why social transformation have occurred (read further findings from this project). The research will be continued to understand the enduring impacts of lockdown on everyday routines, and to contribute to the Everyday Life in a Pandemic project, and international sociological study to explore the implications of Covid-19 on everyday practices around the world.