Will 2021 be the year of living sustainably for Europe?
By Thin Lei Win
Driving less. Opting for trains instead of planes. Cutting down on red meat and consuming more locally grown food. Buying less but spending more on sustainable products.
If these preferences from multiple surveys with tens of thousands of people across Europe are anything to go by, 2021 might be the year when consumer behaviour makes a significant shift towards eco-friendly living.
The findings suggest now could be the time for policy makers and green activists to jump-start a lasting transition to tackle global warming alongside social and economic inequalities, researchers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We have a moment of opportunity to lay out a platform, which addresses some of the changes that people are now ready to make," said British author and University of Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash, who led the team behind one of the opinion polls.
The transformation could cover travel, work environments and consumption patterns, as well as addressing "the discontent about inequality, community and identity", he said in a phone interview. "If we're clever, we will seize the chance."
His September survey of more than 13,000 people in 28 European nations found two in three would support a ban on short-haul flights if the destination can be reached in 12 hours by train.
More than half said governments should only support national airlines financially if the bailouts have environmental strings attached, such as phasing out fuel-inefficient aircraft.
Nearly half would support pedestrianising city centres and more than 50% would use their car less often, while nearly two-thirds would be prepared to reduce meat consumption.
Some trends, like sustainable eating, are not new, but this year's devastating global pandemic - which upended daily life in an unprecedented manner - has "strengthened and accelerated" them, said Klaus Grunert from Denmark's Aarhus University.
And many of the new habits could stick, said Grunert, a professor at the Department of Management who has been conducting research on consumer behaviour for decades.
"Habits function in stable environments. When the environment becomes disrupted, they change more easily," he said. "The pandemic has been a disruptive event ... so it's a good situation for behavioural change."
NO GENERATION GAP
In September, Aarhus led a survey of 5,000 people in 10 European countries to discover the pandemic's impact on food shopping and consumption, and found substantial shifts.
Almost half said they were more conscious of healthy eating and about three in 10 wanted to continue cooking at home, according to the survey commissioned by EIT Food, an initiative from the European Union.
A third said buying locally was now more important, while nearly 30% would opt for unpackaged products or those with biodegradable or recyclable packaging. More than 80% of both groups said they would continue their new behaviour.
Global commodities giant Archer Daniels Midland Co, meanwhile, has identified "sustainability" as one of the top five global food trends for 2021.
Consumers want to make a positive impact on the environment and many now know more about the links between food systems and labour issues, contamination, water quality and deforestation, the company said in a report based on its own research.
Contrary to widespread assumptions, there is little difference between the generations in levels of desire for climate action, according to the Oxford University survey, part of a project called Europe's Stories.
"That was extremely surprising to us," said Antonia Zimmermann from Europe's Stories. "It shows the majority of Europeans across age groups think more needs to be done on climate change, not only the young."
But there was a difference between a survey in March, before several months of pandemic lockdown, and one in September, when respondents seemed more open to adapting their lifestyles to tackle climate change, the researchers said.
Receiving new information also influenced their choices, Zimmermann said.
For example, only about 40% said they would be willing to eat less meat at the beginning of the survey - but this jumped to 68% after learning livestock production is responsible for nearly 15% of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, she said. "It's one of the areas where Europeans are quite poorly educated still," she added. "We know much more about the environmental impact of using our car or flying, and much less about the impact of our dietary choices."
Europe's Stories also plans to follow up on a striking finding from the March survey that 71% of Europeans across all age groups support the introduction of a universal basic income.
"For an idea that has often been dismissed as wildly unrealistic and utopian, this is a remarkable figure," the researchers said. They also found that 84% supported an EU proposal for a mandatory minimum wage.
Still, mounting concerns over economic downturn could pose a key challenge to the growing desire to live sustainably.
The EIT Food survey found consumers across Europe suffered financial hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a third of respondents losing part or all of their income and 55% finding it difficult to make ends meet every month.
That suggests affordability, as much as environmental concerns, will be a crucial driver of consumer behaviour.
In addition, many charities in Britain could be slimming or shutting down just when their services are most needed, said British IT firm DSA Connect, whose survey of 1,000 adults found 28% had cut their donations since the Covid-19 crisis began.
This amounted to losses of about £140 million ($189 million) a month for charities, the data company said.
"The post-Covid economic life, at least in the short to medium term, is going to be higher unemployment, more insecurity (and) levels of public debt in some places up to heights not seen since the end of the Second World War," said Garton Ash.
Such circumstances may push people back to worrying about jobs and provide "fertile ground" for populists, he warned.
Policy makers and those aiming to tackle climate change and inequality need to come up with "credible and feasible programmes" - whether universal basic income, flexible working or better public transport, he said.