Our lockdown lifestyles may hold some lessons for building back better
But consumer habits need to be supported by government action
By Laxmi Haigh, Lead of Editorial at Circle Economy
Over a year on from the start of global lockdowns, many of us are still living with restrictions, with limited family visits and a small walk around the block being our most exciting daily activity. But what can we learn from our lockdown lifestyles, and can they bring a more circular future? This article will consider how the findings of our Circularity Gap Report 2021 may provide insightful guidance for the parts of the world that are now — or hopefully soon — emerging from covid-19 lockdowns.
Lockdown lifestyles have been increasingly local. This reality, as well as trade disruptions, have made a hefty dent in the annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions bill: at the lowest point, global CO2 was 7% (between 2% and 12%) lower than in 2019. Such a shift in our GHG emissions output has not been seen since the Second World War. This may not be news for many of us — news outlets have long expounded this message as a ‘positive’ impact of lockdown purgatory — but it’s more complex than that.
The historic drop in GHG emissions isn’t necessarily good news. It’s the result of economic slumps and widely negative health and social impacts. ‘Low economic growth is not a low emissions strategy’, Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), reminds us. All economies slumped, but countries with existing debt were particularly hard hit. Unfortunately, the imbalance among nations reflects inequalities that exist within nations — inequalities that have only worsened during the pandemic.
If we don’t work to get ourselves on a better track once the global economy recovers, we will only return to previous GHG emissions levels — and even surpass them. To put GHG emissions into a structural decline and mitigate climate breakdown, we have many avenues at our disposal. These avenues are not only grounded in energy policies — they go far further and span economic policy, industry, business and individual consumer behaviour. These are circular strategies that span the micro (can be practised by consumers) and the macro (governments or businesses), and that crucially also deliver a host of co-benefits for society and the environment.
Circular strategies in action during lockdown
The circular economy offers a multitude of options to lower global GHG emissions, reduce virgin resource extraction and, ultimately, mitigate climate breakdown. At Circle Economy, we spent months researching interventions to do just this: our recently launched Circularity Gap Report 2021 lays out a circular roadmap of 21 interventions. If implemented globally, it has the potential to cut 39% of GHG emissions, 28% of virgin resource extraction and limit warming global temperatures to 1.75-degrees (well below 2-degrees) by 2032.
Ultimately, we need materials to fuel our lifestyles; this produces emissions. However, the circular economy — and our roadmap — ensures that with less material input and fewer emissions, we can still deliver the same, or better, output. Some of the impactful interventions we recommend governments around the world integrate into their national climate pledges — Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — and that consumers also adopt, bear remarkable similarities to the current habits many of us practice living under lockdown.
- In striving for sustainable food systems, our 2021 Report recommends more seasonal, organic food that is regional or local, or that you grow and produce yourself. This has the potential to slash 3.44 billion tonnes of GHG emissions and reduce resource extraction by 0.74 billion tonnes.
Meanwhile, according to Wrap, planning, careful storage and batch-cooking during lockdown have reduced people’s reported levels of food waste by 22% compared with 2019. And over in the UAE, lockdown encouraged the government to transform its food production, where 80% of food is imported, by investing in a new indoor farm that will soon commercially grow local tomatoes under solely artificial LED lights in a climate-controlled warehouse.
- In making mobility clean, we suggest reducing long-distance travel with telecommuting and assume that there would be reduced cargo shipping due to more local consumption habits. This has the potential to slash 2.41 billion tonnes of GHG emissions and reduce resource extraction by 1.96 billion tonnes.
Reduced travel during lockdown has also had major benefits for air quality — a pertinent issue for population health — especially in highly-polluted areas and cities. In a region of Gujarat, India, a rapid reduction of most pollutant concentrations was identified following lockdowns, as well as a rise as cities began opening up again. Other studies have also identified pollutant drops, but also warned against being complacent about the work that needs to be done to clean up our air.
- In moving toward circular construction, we suggest reducing floor space by encouraging more multifunctional building spaces and limiting residential stock expansion — which is supported if less space is needed for offices due to working-from-home, which can also continue once lockdown ends. This has the potential to slash 3.16 billion tonnes of GHG emissions and reduce resource extraction by 8.38 billion tonnes.
Indeed, currently unused office spaces — overwhelmingly sitting empty and not yet being repurposed as multi-functional spaces — continue to drain energy as building systems (ventilation, heating, air conditioning, emergency lighting) likely still run on standby power. As many companies affirm that staff productivity has been maintained amid working from home practices, we could be afforded with a lot of square metres of space — with no new buildings required.
- In ensuring circular consumables, we recommend making use of less — or make more efficient use — of paper, natural textiles, plastics, furniture and electronic goods. Lockdown typically allows for a more limited set of activities, and thereby materials to fuel the ‘stuff’ we need to support them. This has the potential to slash 0.30 billion tonnes of GHG emissions and reduce resource extraction by 0.80 billion tonnes.
Research has reported that lockdowns, especially in the earlier months, led to a drop in purchasing for all but necessary essentials, a rise in bulk shopping and a nearly total move from brick-and-mortar shops to the digital space. The impacts of economic slowdown, job losses and widespread furlough have also been evident in our spending patterns, and contributed to the rise of a so-called ‘new frugality’.
- In enhancing efficient communications, we see that smaller and lightweight electronics, alongside increased digitalisation, from our day-to-day jobs to virtual healthcare, can cut 0.19 billion tonnes of GHG emissions and reduce resource extraction by 0.33 billion tonnes.
Aside from GHG and resource use benefits, the rapid rise of ‘virtual’ work, healthcare, worship and other social events, can have transformational effects on groups who may have limited access to physical events, thereby supporting inclusion and accessibility for all.
In really calculating the impact of lockdown lifestyles, our Report analyst went a step further. Although not published in the report itself, they modelled the impact our current lifestyles have on emissions and virgin material extraction. As well as the interventions presented above, this intervention also included a reduction in commercial-service use by 25%, enjoying more local cultural activities, more shared services in local neighbourhoods, working from home or living closer to work and commuting less often, and an increase in electricity and fuel costs in the home. This intervention had a large impact on global emissions: a reduction of 8.6% (or by 2.87 billion tonnes) and a reduction in resource extraction of 1.1% (0.81 billion tonnes).
From the consumer to government: we can all play a role
People are re-evaluating how they lived their lives in the times ‘before’ covid-19 and lockdown. One study found that more than half of Britons want to be more sustainable after lockdown, while The Economist predicts the ‘death of the office’ as many workers won’t go back to the office at pre-lockdown rates. Certainly, lockdowns cannot last forever, but it seems a huge amount of people don’t want life to return to how it was before either. In a circular system, we may be able to enjoy some of the bits we did like from lockdown, while also contributing to a healthier planet and happier people.
Now is the time to capitalise on how the pandemic has shone a light on the flaws of our current linear system and unsustainable habits. We have an opportunity that we cannot let pass. Yet, more than a year after covid-19 appeared, little has been done to prevent a rapid rebound in GHG emissions as countries began opening up after both the first and second wave, and spending on a ‘green recovery’ has been minimal (less than 3% of the $14.6 trillion covid-induced spending). Crucially, we need government support for circular strategies — consumer behaviour can only really be a drop in the ocean if the system remains linear.
Governments are now making decisions in spending recovery funds that will shape our climate future, while as consumers, we can continue to practise some of the more local and virtual activities that we may have picked up during lockdown. As lockdown passes and begins to lift in some parts of the world, let’s not forget the benefits for people and the planet that some parts of our lockdown-reality encouraged.
About the Circularity Gap Report 2021
Circle Economy’s flagship report, published annually beginning in 2018, details the state of our world’s circularity. This year’s iteration combines the twin agendas of the circular economy and climate change mitigation, finding that doubling our current circularity metric — 8.6% — will close the Emissions Gap and get us on a path to a well-below 2-degree world.
For a practical look into the findings of the Circularity Gap Report for businesses, cities and nations, download our Circular Economy Briefing toolkits.