The direct impact on behaviour
The COVID-19 outbreak directly affected the behaviour of European inhabitants. Normal daily life suddenly came to a complete standstill because of the lockdowns in European member states. Online activities boomed because of the restrictions, as work had to be done digitally from home, education went online, and online shopping was very popular.
The use of public transport and private cars was drastically diminished. Mobility was limited to the local area and walking or biking were the most important means of transport. This shift also led to a more “place-based consciousness”: the value of the surroundings and nature. In some villages, local campaigns were started up to support the local economy while calling for “buy local” in advertisements.
The behaviour of people in public spaces was affected, calling for a “social distance” to each other (from 1-2 meters), wearing face masks (all the time or in certain situations), regular hand washing, and avoiding handshaking. It made clear that in certain situations, the public space was not designed for this social distance. The restrictions impacted both habits of people and as a result, also “culture” in a broad sense.
Other lessons learned
The outbreak also showed how individual people (and hence society in general) respond to an immediate crisis. The acceptance of the rules or regulations, which were in some member states voluntarily, was in general very high. As lock-downs are being relaxed, remaining restrictions are being discussed and protests are being organised. But although public support for the social distancing rules is declining, still a majority is applying them.
COVID-19 scrupulously revealed weaknesses in different systems, including the social ones. Vulnerable groups – such as the elderly, lower-income groups, or groups with certain diseases – are affected more by COVID-19 than others. This asks for a greater appeal on solidarity in society.
What can we learn from the COVID-19 response for decarbonisation?
Many of the behavioural changes needed to contain the outbreak are also beneficial for decarbonisation. Less travelling and online shopping, learning, working and other online activities result in less CO2 emissions. Place-based consciousness fits well in the sustainability paradigm. Even only keeping a portion of these changes will already have a direct positive impact on decarbonisation.
Keeping an eye on consequences for vulnerable groups is as important for the COVID-19 response as it is for the energy transition. Public support for the restrictions declined as soon as the crisis became less visible and the impact on the economy became apparent. A lesson for decarbonisation is that impacts should be made visible and that policies should jointly stimulate the energy transition and (local) economies). In cases where this is not possible, policy mechanisms should ensure vulnerable groups are not impacted more than others.
After the health crisis, the economic crisis is expected. Investing in the economy should be done in such a way that we not only recover from the economic relapse but also invest in a futureproof decarbonised European economy.