Learning From Lockdown

As the University launches its #LockdownClimateChange campaign, CONNECTED looks at how lifestyle changes during the COVID-19 crisis could be carried forward to help combat climate change.

On Earth Day 2020, two reports on climate change were published calling for urgent action while highlighting the scale of the threat it poses to humanity. A World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report quotes Secretary-General Petteri Taalas arguing that “we need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against COVID-19” and act together “for many generations to come.”

Billions of people around the world have seen their lives change due to enforced social distancing and ‘stay at home’ orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Behaviour changes have included working from home, cutting travel to the bare minimum and shopping less. This has led to reduced air pollution, less road traffic, fewer peaks in energy demand due to more flexible working routines and more grocery home deliveries, which have a lower carbon footprint.

Professor Rosalind Cornforth, Director of the Walker Institute at the University of Reading, said: “One of the biggest barriers to making the required drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change, has always been the costly and disruptive changes to society this would require.

“The COVID-19 crisis has shown that we are able to make these kind of dramatic changes, virtually overnight, when we have to.”


Upon the launch of its #LockdownClimateChange campaign last week, the University asked people to pledge to continue with one or more of the changes they have made to their lifestyles after the COVID-19 crisis ends, in order to maintain a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions.

Professor Tim Dixon, Professor of Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment, and the University of Reading’s representative on the Reading Climate Change Board, said: “It’s still early days, but the COVID-19 lockdown period is undoubtedly having a positive impact in reducing carbon emissions. Lockdown can’t continue forever, but after the coronavirus crisis eases, we have the chance to continue to keep climate change in lockdown, rather than automatically switching back to high-carbon lifestyles.

“This period can act as an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’, and learn how some of the dramatic behaviour and infrastructure changes we must make to combat climate change would actually affect our lives, and help benefit people, business and the planet as a whole.

“Many people may have found there are elements of their lockdown lives they prefer, such as driving less and cycling more, or working from home rather than daily commuting. Individual actions are a small but important part of the solution to climate change, and it makes sense to keep doing them wherever we can, now and in the future.”

Our pledge

As part of the campaign, the University of Reading is highlighting how its own institutional sustainability activity could change once lockdown has been lifted, starting with how the University can lower its carbon footprint even further.

The University last week reported it had achieved a 44% reduction in its carbon footprint by the end of 2019. This improves on the 40% milestone hit last summer, and puts the University well on course to surpass its target of a 45% reduction by 2021.

With campus operations vastly scaled down since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University’s annual carbon emissions for 2020 will undoubtedly be impacted. However, there are also opportunities to use the lockdown to identify additional ways the University could reduce its impact on the environment.

Dan Fernbank, Sustainability Manager at the University of Reading, said:

“With campus buildings closed, and staff and students mostly working from home, the University has an opportunity to get a real insight into how we all use energy and how we could cut our emissions to zero, even faster than planned.

“We can’t operate without a campus, but this is a unique opportunity to better understand exactly how energy is used in each of our buildings. We can also test how more flexible working, online delivery of teaching and cutting unnecessary travel will help us accelerate our carbon reduction plans, which have already seen us cut 44% of our annual emissions over the past 12 years.”

Once university life resumes after government measures are lifted, the remainder of the year will make way for a ‘new normal’ emissions rate to be established in 2021/22. It is anticipated that when this ‘new normal’ point is reached, the University will have far exceeded its 45% reduction target.

During the lockdown, and as the campus gradually reopens, the University has opportunities to better understand residual energy consumption while buildings are closed and gain new insight into future energy demand; review the scope for remote or flexible working, such as sharing workspaces and hosting online meetings; gain insight into delivering teaching online; and consider how travel to and from campus could be reduced.

Professor Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, said: “We all have a part to play in tackling this crisis. COVID-19 is a tragedy, and will cost the economy billions, but the measures to contain the virus shows the lengths to which people are willing to go to protect their families and save other people’s lives.

“We all look forward to seeing the back of COVID-19, and must focus on making this a reality. Once quarantine measures have ended, let’s learn from our lockdown and make the changes necessary to tackle climate change, which will be humanity’s biggest challenge in the years and decades to come.”

The University of Reading is challenging the public and businesses to pledge to keep one or more low-carbon behaviours and share them on social media – join the conversation using #LockdownClimateChange.