COVID-19 appeared to give the environment a new lease of life – at least that’s how it looked in the beginning. Transport halted, factories went quiet, and scenic locations looked immaculate for the first time in decades. Decreased activity at this scale saw carbon emissions drop drastically. 

This all sounds like a considerable win for the environment, and for people’s health. And it would be – if it were sustainable. 

Sadly, this isn’t the case. Pew Research Center found that many people globally are as concerned about climate change as they are about the spread of infectious diseases. As the world grapples to control the virus, the issue of sustainability and our impact on the environment continues to bubble under the surface.

Consumers felt more hopeful – but it didn’t last long.

COVID-19 initially led to much greater optimism about our potential impact on the environment. 

In Q2 2020, 53% of consumers globally said they think the environment will get better in the next 6 months, up from 41% in Q1 2020.

Across the majority of the 46 countries we track, consumers’ environmental optimism jumped up by at least 20 points during this timeframe. Only four markets had a slight decrease, or no change, in optimism. 

Despite this, it seems the positive developments have been short-lived – and overstated. 

Air pollution levels have already returned to pre-pandemic levels in 12 major world cities. Research also showed that the dramatic drops in air pollutants and greenhouse gases will have very little impact on global warming. This is because the changes made were temporary, and have come at the greatest possible cost.

Now, as the reality of the situation becomes clearer, consumer fallout is looming. In our Q3 2020 research, we can already see optimism about the environment has sharply declined. 

The outbreak has created its own environmental issues.

Aside from the very short-lived gains, which were quickly lost as economic activity resumed, the outbreak has created a whole host of problems. 

The production of single-use plastics and waste has increased considerably, especially as PPE usage surged. A study by SYSTEMIQ forecasts that the flow of plastic into oceans will nearly treble by 2040 if governments and industries don’t take greater action to combat the growing plastics crisis. 

At the same time, other changes in consumers’ behavior during the pandemic have contributed to the waste problem. Consumers are shopping online more and consuming more takeout food, both of which are still heavily reliant on overusing packaging or single-use plastics.

In February 2020, food delivery giant Just Eat partnered with sustainable packaging startup Notpla to trial tree and grass pulp boxes lined with seaweed, which decompose in around 4 weeks.

Meanwhile, companies in China – one of the world’s biggest users of plastic – are making headway in tackling the growing waste problem. Meituan Dianping, China’s leading ecommerce platform for services, is ramping up efforts to build a green supply chain for packaging. This shows the importance of continued business action, even during this time. 

As the mountain of plastic waste piles up, so will the pressure on businesses to take action.  

Environmental worries

Increased waste due to COVID-19 has quickly become one of consumers’ biggest concerns, alongside air pollution, showing just how much the issues associated with COVID-19 are starting to play on their minds. 

When we asked consumers what impact COVID-19 will have on the environment, the majority were pretty pessimistic – a sign of the impending backlash to come. Just over 40% of consumers say the outbreak will have a negative impact on the environment, either short-term or long-term. Even among those who think it’s positive, 25% of them said the impact will be short-lived. 

Now’s the time for action, from all sides.

Understandably in the current situation, COVID-19 has garnered far more attention than environmental issues. But our research shows the importance of behaving sustainably, both at an individual and business level, has increased.

In July 2020, 72% of consumers across 20 countries said companies behaving sustainably was more important to them because of COVID-19. 

Consumers have high expectations of their own behavior too; around 70% said that reducing their own impact on the environment was more important because of the outbreak. They’re not prepared to forget about one crisis because of another. 

The Philippines and India post the highest figures across the board, reaching over 85%. Both countries are often at the sharp end of the waste crisis. 

Clearly, consumers’ positive intent is there, and so is their willingness to take action.

The top actions people say they plan to do in the next 6 months are: reduce food waste, walk or cycle more, and reduce the amount of plastic/single-use packaging they use. But they can’t do it alone. Governments, brands, policy makers, and manufacturers are all instrumental in making these ambitions a reality. 

For example, something as simple as walking or cycling more (a far more sustainable form of transport) requires cities to invest in dedicated cycling infrastructure and create more walking space. The outbreak has spurred many cities to take action, including London’s Streetspace and Mexico City’s commitment to create 54km of designated cycle lanes. 

We’ve got an opportunity to reset.

COVID-19 has shown us just how difficult it will be to address climate issues. Energy emissions are set to drop around 6% this year, but to reach the goal of keeping global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees, net emissions of greenhouse gases must fall to around zero by 2050.

We’ve got a long way to go. Analysis from The Guardian found that in at least 18 of the world’s biggest economies, pandemic rescue packages are dominated by spending that has a harmful environmental impact.

Making changes like this involves a complete reset of our economies and how we operate. 

Every industry – from aviation to manufacturing – needs to take responsibility to reassess their supply chains as well as their operations, and make tangible steps forward in tackling this growing problem. 

Several fashion brands have promised to make sustainability front-and-center to their recovery, while Shell plans for a major restructuring as it prepares to invest more in renewable energy. Unlike the outbreak, for which there will likely be some kind of a solution in the next two years, tackling climate change is a bigger, long-term battle that will take decades to improve – with catastrophic health, economic, and environmental consequences if we don’t. 

The outbreak has taught us so many lessons about our impact on the world we live in, and the changes we need to make. Don’t let this opportunity go to waste. 

Best case scenario (where normality is more plausible)

Even if the situation with COVID-19 were to drastically improve overnight, our fight against climate change won’t. We’re a long way off reaching the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.

COVID-19 has shown us just how difficult decreasing energy output is and how much work there’s left to do. Businesses, governments, and policy makers need to use COVID-19 as an opportunity to double down on sustainability commitments and investments – inaction is not an option.

Worst-case scenario (involving more causes and restrictions)

If future waves of the virus come our way, or if a vaccine is delayed, there’s no doubt COVID-19 will be the primary focus again. While we need to be doing what we can to fight the virus, we also need to lay the groundwork to rewire the economy and make it more sustainable going forward.

Our impact on the environment was bad enough before COVID-19, without more collective action and awareness, it could be far worse.

Click to access our connecting the dots 2021 report

Written by

Katie is a Senior Trends Manager at GWI. She’s an avid baker and Harry Potter fanatic, who loves to binge-watch all the latest shows. When she’s not busy whipping up a cheesecake or watching murder-mysteries, you’ll find her exploring what makes consumers tick.

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