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February 10, 2021

The interlocking nature of Covid and climate change

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As we look ahead to COP26 all the while grappling with the emergence of new variants of Covid-19 around the world and ongoing economic fall-outs from the pandemic, we will increasingly find ourselves hearing the term #buildbackbetter.

And with Biden now in place, as well as China having made a new carbon neutral commitment recently (by 2060), there is some optimism around the world that we’re seeing meaningful momentum in addressing our climate emergency.

To ensure we make the most of this opportunity, we need to think not just about regulations, financing, technology, infrastructure…. But about how all of this translates to the population.

And for this, we need to pause and reflect on how Covid-19 has influenced people’s attitudes towards climate change. From our own proprietary research (from which we will share more detail soon) as well as a number of studies for our clients, we’ve identified four key points worth calling out:

Climate concern is growing 

In the past year, we’ve often heard the hypothesis that climate change is less important to people at the moment, given the ravages Covid has wreaked.  But we can hold climate anxiety in our heads – all the while being preoccupied by today’s most seemingly pressing issues.

The overall trajectory is of widening, and intensifying, concern about climate change and its potential impacts.  While nearer-term and more localised or individual challenges (e.g. personal finances, healthcare systems and personal health, unemployment) may be relatively more important to many in this Covid period, none of these make climate change less worrisome.

Concern is growing because it’s clear that global warming is worsening.  While there was a brief period of hope that lifestyle changes brought about by lockdown would have a meaningful impact – where people were buoyed by clearer roads and cleaner air – it’s become evident that this doesn’t make enough of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

There is concern Covid has meant we’ve taken our eye of the ball  

In the past, we’ve seen climate change anxiety peaking around periods where wildfires were spreading, or had recently caused extensive damage. The symbolism of the world ‘being on fire’ with a sense of climate change being out of control, supported by the dominance of these stories in the news 24/7, can stimulate high anxiety.

While for some, the lack of media attention given to climate change relative to Covid can mean that it’s easier to avoid thinking about it, or overlook the issue without realising.

But for those who are more ‘climate-engaged’, growing concern is fuelled by a feeling that Covid has meant that we’ve collectively taken our eye off the ball when it comes to climate change.  That we’re so busy firefighting today’s issues that we’re not taking seriously enough the devastating future picture, and acting with the necessary proactivity.

Practically speaking, there is concern that the economic and societal fall-out of Covid-19 will continue to preoccupy governments, squeezing the air-time given to the longer-term threats we face.

Economics are creating some polarisation in climate change engagement 

We’ve seen people express many barriers to making more sustainable choices in their day-to-day lives, but several dominate consistently: there’s conflicting information (on what makes a more sustainable choice); the information is not clear enough; lack of trust in what companies tell us; and it costs too much.

The cost penalty is not just an issue when it comes to the ‘bigger ticket’ items, such as electric cars or investing in heat pumps for the home, but widely relevant for daily choices in the supermarket.

If everyday more sustainable choices continue to come at an additional cost to the shopper in these straitened times, companies risk not making fast enough progress in contributing towards controlling the climate emergency.

And so we risk seeing an intensification of frustration that has been there for some time: that you have to be rich to make choices you can feel good about.  This has the potential to create backlash on the brands that are responsible for ‘climate’ tiering in their product portfolios.

Within all this, there is hope

With COP26 coming up, with vaccines being rolled out, there is still hope emerging.

There is hope that we are – at least in developed markets – now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.  That even if the impacts of Covid-19 will roll on for years, the rebuilding of our economies and the resumption of something approximating ‘normal’ life is not a distant dream.    Positive sentiment on this has the potential to buoy us in our thinking around climate change too.

More specifically, we can see that people are drawing some hope from the astonishing efforts around the world to create effective vaccines at breakneck speed, and from how quickly we were able to adapt our ways of living to our current realities.

Fundamentally, this gives us hope that anything is possible if we feel propelled strongly enough, and if there is a clear sense of collective endeavour.

And this collective endeavour point is a crucial one for the business community to bear in mind.  To make the change we need on the climate emergency, we can’t leave people behind.

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