Climate Change after COVID-19: What does it mean for the North East?’

By Simon Green, CEO – Innovation SuperNetwork

Climate Change has been called the biggest threat to the human race, with governments globally declaring a climate emergency. 

With the onset of Coronavirus, concerns have arisen that any gains in carbon emission reduction might increase as the world returns to work.

Considered a threat across societies, demographic groups and businesses, all of the local authorities in North East England have declared a ‘Climate Emergency’.

They are calling for urgent action to avoid deep and long-lasting damage to people, communities and the economy.

With this in mind, we were keen to try and understand what the North East business community thought the biggest issues were in thinking about Climate Change in a post-COVID-19 world.

We surveyed our network last month. 

What does life after COVID-19 look like for climate change?

The current situation with COVID-19 initially led to reduced focus on climate change as an issue.

Reductions in travel and economic activity in 2020 have meant short term falls in harmful emissions.

However, recovery from COVID-19 presents challenges for climate change mitigation:

  • Concern over the spread of viruses when in close proximity to others is likely to reduce public transport usage;
  • Public transport providers will in any case need to reduce passenger capacity to achieve social distancing. However, the Government is discouraging public transport usage;
  • The number of people continuing to work from home over the coming months and years is unclear. However, it may not be sufficient to offset reduced public transport usage, leading to an increase in private car journeys;
  • Increased prevalence of on-demand delivery services, which involve multiple deliveries from different organisations to the same streets, could increase emissions (particularly in congested areas);
  • There may be a perception amongst people that they have ‘done their bit’ for society through the lockdown. There may be less willingness to make other changes to their behaviour to benefit the environment;
  • Businesses which have taken a financial hit through the lockdown may be less able to invest in energy saving measures and new (more efficient) equipment.

Taken together, these factors have the potential to increase overall emissions at a time when climate science shows they need to be reduced.

However, there are possible opportunities arising from COVID-19 as well. Renewed awareness of how home working and different modes of transport could make a positive contribution.

The aim of the survey was to understand what local people and businesses thought were the threats and opportunities arising out of this situation.

Combining these thoughts with conversations with regional organisations and stakeholders gives us an idea of where we should focus our efforts.

The climate change survey results

Overall, the feeling of people responding to the survey was overwhelmingly positive.

69% of people felt that overall carbon footprint across businesses, home life, transport and leisure activities would fall after lockdown, compared to previous levels.

Only 10% thought that carbon footprint would increase, with the remainder thinking it would be about the same as before.

The biggest factor in this positivity was related to travel and particularly home working.

The impact of working from home

74% of respondents thought that their carbon footprint from travel and transport would be reduced after lockdown. Growth in home working would mean much less time spent commuting to the office or travelling to meetings.

67% thought that the carbon footprint from their overall working life would be reduced.

This seemed to be a common theme across people working for big organisations (where temporary home working policies were quickly being turned into long-term arrangements) and smaller businesses.

Anecdotal comments suggest that increased acceptance of home working is expected to become the norm. Respondents were generally happy about that, seeing it as a positive thing from an environmental and personal well-being point of view.

In addition to reduced travel to offices, respondents thought that they would be attending less events and external meetings, particularly if this meant travelling out of the region.

There was a worry though that some people may not be able to work from home and reduced availability of public transport will force people into private cars, offsetting some of the possible benefits.

The potential value of electric vehicle adoption and cycling as a commuting option was highlighted here, with questions over whether the infrastructure to support such changes was available.

Home life carbon footprint

The biggest area of negativity was around the carbon footprint of home life, with only 41% thinking it would be reduced.

This was partly related to the home working point, with additional time being spent at home meaning higher energy bills.

The impact of this energy consumption wasn’t thought to be very large in comparison to the savings from reduced travel but it could still have an impact, especially in less well insulated properties.

There was also concern around the amount of individual home deliveries, leading to questions around fuel consumption and packaging waste.

What are the thoughts around leisure?

Innovation SuperNetwork Climate Change after COVID-19 in the North East Blog Post

The area with perhaps the least certainty was around leisure activities. In the immediate term, respondents thought they would be taking far fewer flights and staying closer to home, with a significant impact on carbon footprint.

Some commented that the enforced lockdown had made them realise the pleasures of being closer to home.

Again, cycling came up as a leisure pursuit and something that people would generally like to continue with.

However, this was balanced by concerns that such changes may be temporary, and once international travel was practical again people would revert to their previous ways.

What can we do to make a difference to the carbon footprint in the North East?

From reviewing the survey results and conversations with a range of stakeholders in the region, there is clearly a big opportunity here.

We can take the terrible situation we’ve been in this year and ensure the recovery is as beneficial to the environment as possible.

As such, we have launched a Climate Change Accelerator programme.

It will support the development of 15 new products or services that will support the reduction in carbon emissions in a post-COVID-19 environment.

Informed by the results from our survey, as well as wider research and stakeholder consultation, the accelerator will look at specific challenges.

These will be linked to electric vehicle adoption, home deliveries, home working, cycling and public transport. Full details can be viewed on our website.

Let’s make a difference together.

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