Few of us are clamouring for a return to the restrictions of the lockdown, but for many it was nevertheless an experience that suggested a better, more balanced, and less environmentally damaging way of life. With few cars on the road, air quality palpably improved, greenhouse gas emissions fell, and wildlife began to flourish.
What are the lessons of the lockdown for the climate transition we now need? What did local residents find positive and negative about the experience? And can shifting to home-working deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in a more permanent way? 418 residents within Stratford District responded to a short online survey, developed by Stratford Climate Action, asking them about these questions.
Concern about climate breakdown was strongly reflected in our survey:
As the survey was shared on Stratford Climate Action’s Facebook page, climate concern is likely here distorted upwards, though as most of our responses came in result to Facebook adverts or posting on non-environmental pages, the effect is likely small. Last year, concern about the climate reached record levels, also shown in national polls. Even with Covid-19 hogging the news, 66% of people in the UK agree that the climate emergency is at least as big a crisis as the virus. This has fed into demands for the government to Build Back Better, with only 6% of people saying they want to see no changes to the way the economy operates. Nearly three quarters of people would like to see the UK’s green spaces enhanced with increased wildlife and plant diversity.
Your Experiences of Lockdown
We asked what (if anything) people had enjoyed most about lockdown, and what had been their biggest problem. Only a minority had experienced either nothing bad (9%) or nothing good (10%); for most it was a more mixed experience.
Many of the benefits people recognised in the lockdown should also be realised by a transition to an environmentally sustainable way of life. Increasing home-working, removing cars from the road, and transitioning to cleaner vehicles would save CO2 emissions, clean up the air, decrease traffic and noise, reduce commuting time, give people more time for themselves, and so on—even without the possible inclusion of a four-day week or universal basic income, which have been mooted as possible aspects of a Green New Deal:
Altogether, around 51% mentioned one or more thing indicating an increase in free time; others mentioned a better work/life balance, or a more peaceful, relaxed, less pressured life. This is not surprising, given that national studies suggest British people are overworked. By contrast, of the 9 people who said they were missing work, it was only clear in two cases that this was to do with the work itself, rather than missing colleagues or income. One respondent commented that “My conclusion, having worked in some shape or form for 39 years, is that work isn’t one of [my life priorities]. I plan to retire very early and pursue things that really interest me.”
Many referred to a better experience of nature, whether in terms of greater wildlife or less air pollution. However, some felt Covid-19 had served as a cover for further climate destruction, or referred to increased plastic waste from PPE: “It’s been used as an excuse by governments all over the world to do less about the climate emergency – which is likely to be more lethal than Covid.” Sadly, there is much that seems to justify this fear.
By contrast with the benefits, very few (11%) of the problems people mentioned were relevant to an environmental transition.
We interpret this as showing what is really important to people. The fact that people seemed to be missing each other, more than their existing ways of working and consumer habits, suggests that people are less wedded to the old way of life than perhaps they realise. We value each other much more than a mythical ‘way of life’ defined by particular patterns of consumption. When we squarely face the unavoidable choice between social collapse and current consumption patterns, there can be no doubt where people’s values lie. If we are to protect those we love in coming decades, it is important that we do squarely face this choice, rather than allowing ourselves to be misdirected into fixating on beef steaks, conspicuous consumption, and gas-guzzling cars, by those sections of the mass media that are aligned with the fossil fuel industry.
Many people experienced a tangible reduction in air pollution, and CO2 emissions fell during the lockdown period. Could homeworking provide an element in a more permanent strategy for net-zero emissions? To try to find out, we asked people working from home about their normal commute, and calculated an estimate using official figures for average vehicle emissions.
We estimate that if our survey is representative, 28 kilotonnes (kt) of CO2 per annum could be saved within the district, by preserving the homeworking arrangements implemented during the lockdown. Up to a further 6 kt CO2 could potentially be saved from journeys taken during working hours, to the extent that those tasks could be performed remotely. This is likely a conservative estimate, as it uses official estimates for average vehicle emissions, which tend to underestimate emissions under actual driving conditions. However, many felt they would have to go into work occasionally to perform some of their normal job functions, which would tend to reduce this figure. Perhaps job structures or homeworking infrastructures could be improved to improve this situation.
Whilst 28 kt is a lot, it is only about 5% of annual CO2 emissions from road transport within the district. In 2017, 558.5 kilotonnes of CO2 were emitted from road traffic—the biggest single source of emissions within the district. However, commuting only accounts for a portion of road journeys. Department of Transport statistics suggest that commuting only accounts for around a quarter of road journeys. If we divide emissions within the district by four, then 28 kt would be about 19% of emissions from commuting within the district. This is a very rough way of estimating emissions, but shows that these savings are significant. Other sources of emissions are as follows:
The fact is, road traffic has been increasing year by year, as the building of more roads and of new housing in ‘garden villages’, simply encourages more traffic. Reductions that would otherwise have ensued from increases in vehicle efficiency have mostly been cancelled out in this way. Given the scale of the transition required, the simple electrification of existing traffic will not be enough to reduce, and will not solve the air pollution problems arising from particulate matter, which cause 64,000 deaths annually, a figure close to the pandemic.
A shift to home-working thus seems an important aspect of the climate transition we need now. However, clearly a permanent 19% reduction would be insufficient to the task of reaching net zero emissions. More will be needed, including improvements in public transport, cycling infrastructure, and support for electric vehicles. Stratford Climate Action are working together with other local groups to develop a plan for a better transport system within the district.
Is Homeworking Appealing?
It is possible that refinements in company organisation, combined with technological developments, could increase the viability of homeworking in future (though obviously, this will never be possible for many jobs). Internet technologies have been important during the lockdown period. Our survey showed that 76% had used videocall/conference software during lockdown. 24% had not – and obviously our survey will not have reached those not using the internet at all. 13 people (3%) said internet difficulties had been their biggest problem during the lockdown, allowing people to keep in touch and in many cases to work from home, as well as to interact in a new way: one respondent mentioned they had enjoyed “developing music with others through interactive software”. Clearly the existing technology has many virtues, but could be improved through further investment in technology and roll-out:
Homeworking is not to everyone’s taste. Of those newly homeworking, 71.53% declared themselves happier than before.
Among those unhappy, the most common reason was, again, missing social interaction with colleagues; others missed the energy and structure of an office environment, felt they couldn’t do their job properly, or struggled to separate work and home life, especially with kids around. Moreover, of all surveyed only 20% described homeworking as their ideal: more favoured a mix of homeworking with occasional trips to the office.
People should not be forced to work from home under inadequate conditions. One possible solution would be to set up local neighbourhood office hubs, where people could connect remotely with their company HQ from within walking or cycling distance of their home. However, perhaps due to the unfamiliar nature of such a proposal, 53% of people said they wouldn’t be interested in such a working arrangement.
We believe these are interesting results, which give an impression of where local opinion is at, and which can be a useful source of reflection for members of the public thinking about these important issues. We also think it would be valuable to survey local members of the public in this way more regularly, on a variety of topics.