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Will our behavioural change from COVID-19 help us fight climate change?

Almost overnight, COVID-19 changed our behaviours. Early research suggests that 80-90% of people in affected countries are complying with physical distancing and social isolation. This is an extraordinary change in behaviour. As a behavioural economist, I'm curious to see what the unintended consequences of such large-scale and dramatic behavioural changes are.

An obvious beneficial effect is the drop in carbon emissions. Global carbon output could fall by more than 5.5% this year, according to some initial estimations. This would be the first dip since a 1.4% reduction after the 2008 financial crisis. Will this lead to a longer-term change towards carbon conscious consumer behaviour with less travel and more working from home?

It may not be so easy. Experts warn that without systemic changes in production and consumption patterns, the emissions declines could be short-lived and have little impact. This doesn't bode well for our planet. While we're pulling all the levers to fight the coronavirus pandemic, climate change is continuing its destructive path.

In 2019, natural catastrophes caused USD 137 billion in losses worldwide. Most of them were triggered by smaller recurring events linked to extreme weather – a sign that climate change is increasingly visible in loss numbers. Only 38% of losses were insured, leaving millions of people and businesses exposed to a large protection gap. On the heels of the hottest decade on record, the question remains to what extent governments will emphasise sustainability and digital transformation in their economic recovery strategy, and whether people will adopt a more carbon conscious lifestyle.

Making a habit of greener routines

Our habits are powerful drivers of behaviour. But old habits are disrupted in a state of 'habit discontinuity' whenever there are sustained changes in our environment. In these situations, we are often open to change, and sometimes find improvement, according to Wendy Wood's book "Good Habits Bad Habits. The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick." This happened during a two-day shutdown of the London metro in 2014. As commuters opted for cycling or used other train lines to get to work, their improvisations only led to 6% more time in transit. Some people got to work even faster, such as those who usually travelled on slow lines. Commuters who discovered a faster or more enjoyable journey to work may have embraced the option to make it their new routine.

Discontinuity is abundant in times of coronavirus. Many of the cues in our environment that usually prompt our habitual responses are missing. The largely automatic process of getting ready to head out for work, initially cued by our alarm, is displaced. Similarly, a colleague who would usually pop past for a chat in the morning is only around virtually, eliminating the usual catch-up and tea break. This is both stressful and tiring, but it is also an opportunity to reimagine ourselves. The coronavirus disruptions we're experiencing with working from home and minimising travel can signify a fresh start that allows us to form new aspirations around sustainable travel. Especially as we find that modern technology supports us in our new ways of working, we may find it easier to embrace a more carbon-conscious way of life in the long run.

Does a disaster help us pay attention to climate change?

Over the last few decades, many believed that climate change would only impact us in the distant future. As we know from behavioural science, when dangers loom in the distant future, we don't take them seriously and tend to underprepare, a phenomenon also known as the ostrich effect. We also struggle to make sense of exponential growth – trends that appear to be a slow progression, but suddenly accelerate beyond control. The spread of COVID-19 and the processes associated with global climate change, including carbon dioxide concentrations and their effects, may share this exponential quality.

More danger looms. Climate change has implications for the frequency and severity of future pandemics, potentially extending the transmission season and geographical range for many infectious diseases and so increasing the toll on human life and health. If COVID-19 and climate change share a destructive exponential growth pattern, then it's necessary to act as quickly and decisively on climate change as we are with the coronavirus pandemic.

The awareness seems to be there. An Ipsos MORI global survey showed that 71% of respondents agreed that in the long term, climate change is as serious a crisis as COVID-19.

Let's focus on the biggest threat. COVID-19 may be dwarfed by the exponentially catastrophic risk of climate change. I hope the salience of this pandemic helps us pay attention to the climate and helps us maintain our new, climate-friendly habits. And based on the behavioural science of how we form habits and what we pay attention to, this indeed seems possible – an unintended consequence of COVID-19 that we can embrace.


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