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Addressing the climate emergency: the post-lockdown opportunity

Addressing the climate emergency: the post-lockdown opportunity Tuesday, 14 July, 2020


Small boy placing rainbow picture in a window

As the UK makes its phased exit from lockdown, with much talk about a possible green recovery, we asked some of our senior team at Energy Saving Trust about the challenges and opportunities ahead in a post-lockdown world.

We are living in unprecedented times. Who would have thought, even six months ago that we would have witnessed such change in how we live, work and travel? No longer do we have to wonder whether it’s possible to make the changes required to address the climate emergency. We’ve seen the magic money tree spring into bloom with funding for furloughed workers and desperately needed NHS resource. When the circumstances dictate – our governments can respond.

No one wants to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is a positive state of affairs. However, it has provided us with an unplanned pilot study into how much carbon we could save, were we to call a halt to much international travel and daily commuting – around a third of standard UK emissions according to Sia Partners.

And despite the restrictions, many people have recognised the value of making more sustainable choices. A survey of 1,000 UK adults by The Eco Friendly Living Co indicated 48% of respondents intended to continue to live more sustainably following the immediate lockdown period.

As Tim Anderson, Energy Saving Trust’s Head of Transport comments:

‘There is a new public mood about what is important to us, a sense that our planet is fighting back. We can and should take the opportunity to be idealistic about the solving the challenge of the climate emergency in our new tomorrow.’

Part of a positive change

The lockdown period saw significant falls in air pollution and carbon emissions, with associated health benefits. But how can we ensure that these positive changes are not lost longer term? We’re already seeing emissions levels rise as people get back into their cars. Neil Sachdev, Chair of Energy Saving Trust emphasises the need to:

‘…use our knowledge to enable permanent change in enabling the delivery of a lower carbon economy through relentless engagement at every level.’

The lockdown period created an enforced pause – a potential period of reflection for business as much as individuals. While in many ways this was unwelcome, taking stock and assessing where priorities lie in the future can be of long-term benefit. As Neil says:

‘We have had an opportunity to explore how we can restart our society with fewer carbon emissions. We could use this slow down to retrofit transport, factories and buildings to ensure we do keep our carbon emissions at current levels.’

At supplier level Laura McGadie, Energy Saving Trust’s Head of Energy, points out, it’s been an opportunity for installers, who are usually busy delivering their operations to:

‘…consider how to engage in the green recovery that we are anticipating – to grow industry capacity, skills and knowledge. ‘

There’s also a possibility of linking action on carbon emissions to economic rescue packages. UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres call for Covid-19 stimulus packages and business bailouts to be contingent on their ability to create green jobs and drive sustainable growth has been endorsed by some major multinationals. Mike Thornton, CEO of Energy Saving Trust agrees with this position. He explains:

‘The global stimulus packages widely expected after COVID probably provide the last of last chances to change track on carbon emissions at the scale required and as such are a vital opportunity. I’d argue that unless a sector/organisation actually saves carbon then it shouldn’t get support.  This would force those arguing for a stimulus to find a way to reduce their carbon impact if they were to argue for support for their sector.’

Laura McGadie argues that:

‘…where businesses are less damaging to the climate, even if not creating green jobs and driving sustainable growth, they should not lose out.  The key thing is not to invest in the unsustainable – such as bailing out airlines when we should be reducing air travel.’

Rishi Sunak’s Summer Statement has promised a £3bn of funding for both household and public-building energy efficiency measures and heating in England. This is a welcome recognition of the importance of energy efficiency improvements as a first step on the road to net zero. But there’s much more that needs to happen.

We still need to see infrastructure investments to promote electric vehicles, such as increased charging sites and support for active travel.

Transport and air quality

Those of us in cities experienced first-hand the effects of cleaner air and quieter roads during lockdown. Emptying the skies, clearing the streets and the seas dramatically reduced pollution levels. As Tim Anderson, Head of Transport at Energy Saving Trust says:

‘We have had a vision of a different way of living that does not include copious travelling daily. Cleaner air and vastly reduced carbon emissions are a benefit we are all enjoying and most of us don’t want to return to polluted, congested travel habits.’

Cycling and active travel

Woman cycling in the park

One way to maintain the cleaner air is to stick with active travel. As Laura comments:

‘In Edinburgh people definitely explored and discovered the cycle paths … I am hopeful that some will stick with that mode of transport rather than taking the car in future.’

The lockdown period saw a huge spike in the take-up of cycling across the UK. Local and national stores sold out of bicycles as the UK took to two wheels for exercise. Reduced motor transport on the roads encouraged novice cyclists, with family groups on bikes a frequent sight on UK streets.

We’re already seeing signs of further investment in cycling and walking infrastructure to support the active travel renaissance. This is welcome, with reports that public transport will only be able to accommodate around 15% of its regular capacity to maintain social distancing.


Increased home working dramatically reduces the emissions from commuting. While we may not always work from home in the future, the pandemic appears to have increased the speed of the transition to home working or using local work hubs and away from centralised offices for white-collar workers.

As Mike Thornton, Energy Trust’s CEO comments:

‘It definitely showed that homeworking can do the job and this offers us a massive opportunity to reduce carbon impacts of commuting and travel for work meetings.  The question is now ’why are you commuting?’

The widespread adoption of video conferencing should also reduce the need for excessive business travel. While some industries require physical or face to face interaction, many more have proved that they can work virtually.

Hopes for the future

Within the UK, Mike Thornton’s hopes linking recovery activity to climate goals could support the realisation of our some of the wider benefits of reaching net zero, namely:

‘…energy efficient homes for all, decarbonisation of heat and the elimination of fuel poverty.’

We welcome the recent announcement of a £3bn green stimulus investment, with £2bn focused on home energy efficiency and heating. The money will take many homes towards the government’s 2035 target of an energy efficiency standard of C.

Energy Saving Trust already delivers programmes on behalf of the devolved UK governments to improve energy efficiency but reaching net zero will require significant further interventions.

Focusing on the climate emergency also means no additional support for air travel. While this is a contentious issue, the pandemic presents us with an opportunity for a reset of our expectations. No one wants to ban foreign holidays but given the pollution air travel creates, should we really be taking low cost, short haul flights – many of which could be replaced by trains?

Finally, to reach net zero, we need to continue the community activity we’ve seen during the pandemic. Harnessing the concern demonstrated by individuals supporting vulnerable neighbours, friends and families and focusing that on the environment could reap powerful benefits. As a minimum, it would be wonderful if this altruism and community spirit continued into the post-lockdown world.

Challenges ahead

While we remain positive, COVID19 does present a significant challenge to addressing the climate emergency.

In 2019, thanks to a combination of school strikes, Greta Thunberg’s high profile and the activities of Extinction Rebellion amongst others, the climate emergency rose up the agenda in the UK. But less than a year later, with the loss of thousands of lives and nations struggling to adjust to changing circumstances, the climate emergency can feel a less tangible issue.

But it hasn’t gone away.

Economic recovery, individual health outcomes and the health of the planet are all intrinsically connected. There’s little point in beating the virus, only to succumb to the worst that climate change has in store instead. We must all ensure that the climate emergency is at the heart of the COVID recovery.

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