The Unexpected Motivator – Sustainable Behavior as an Outcome of COVID-19?

Since the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2-related disease COVID-19 the Earth seems to stop spinning. Rapidly evolving into a global pandemic, the virus became a clinical threat for the general population due to the risk of human-to-human transmissions through droplets or direct contact (Lai et al., 2020; Li et al., 2020). Apart from a few exceptions like Belarus, where soccer matches were still celebrated by a wide audience, most countries were quick to implement infection control measures in response to a global dispersion of COVID-19 (Talmazan, 2020). The resulting quarantines, curfews, travel bans and economic lockdowns lead to unprecedented constraints in private and public spaces leaving parts of the world in shock (IOM (International Organization for Migration), 2020).

If we take a closer look at the current situation, it is reasonable to assume that most people’s thoughts first revolve around health, social and economic threats COVID-19 is causing. And who can blame them since these major topics are currently shaping and determining most of our daily routines. Certainly, we cannot dismiss the frightening consequences – but why not use some of them as an opportunity instead of a risk?


The global restrictions did not only shock humans but also mother nature – this time in a positive way. Lockdown rules forced temporary shutdowns of factories, lower private and occupational traffic and therefor emptier roads and transportation hubs. Simultaneously we witness reduced travel activities initialized by closed airports, visa restrictions and an overall lower demand. These factors combined to a diminished level of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and even lower fossil fuel emissions discovered from space (NASA, 2020; Patel, 2020). 

However, it is relevant to not dismiss the data: yes, the air pollution decreased in some parts of the world – no, the air is still not free of pollution (Patel, 2020). Moreover, NO2 density will most likely rise again after lockdowns and restrictions ease. Factories may even provoke an increase from the pre-virus state in order to make up for lost time with higher production rates (Gardiner, 2020). Therefore we should rather understand the current positive climate effects as a lesson for future operations, well summarized by Barry Lefer, NASA’s program scientist for tropospheric composition: “The world’s response to the pandemic is an unintended experiment that is giving us a chance to test our understanding of various air pollution emissions sources” (NASA, 2020).


Obviously, we have nothing to gain if the post-crisis behavior reflects or even succeeds the pre-crisis structures. While the call for more sustainable behavior has been around for many years, the effects of COVID-19 should be seen as a new opportunity to bring the issue back on the fore and head for a transformation. Availability heuristics suggests that the perception of risk is strongly influenced by common events that are cognitively accessible (Clayton et al., 2015). Besides, humans are more willing to react and take action if they learn from their own experience of being exposed to the risk (Loewenstein et al., 2001). It therefore seems to be the right time to strengthen the creation of a long-lasting sustainable society – but how?  

Human behavior is shaped by social structures which in turn can be changed by individuals themselves. A social transformation is achievable, when the critical mass of individuals actively supports it. Manageable by the Behavioral Change Framework every behavioral modification is based on the awareness of a problem, followed by the intention to take actions (Vollan, 2020). But several barriers like limited willpower or biases hinder the transfer from intention to action and intimidate people’s motivation and ability to respond effectively to environmental changes and corresponding risks (Schill et al., 2019; Clayton et al., 2015). 


As habits and norms are regarded as driving forces in environmentally relevant behavior, daily choices need to be pushed towards more sustainable practices (Clayton et al., 2015).
So-called nudges can help. Nudging describes the approach that shift consumers’ decisions in particular directions and thus influence them to choose the desired option without limiting their freedom of choice (Sunstein, 2014). A famous tool to nudge is the use of default options. Change of default settings from opt-in to opt-out, which were effective to increase organ donation rates or retirement saving outcomes, can also be considered an advisable tool for environmentally friendly behavior (Van Dalen & Henkens, 2014; Beshears et al., 2009). Changing carbon offset as the opt-out instead of opt-in option across booking websites will most likely transform the carbon offset rates in a similar way as donation or saving rates (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019). 
Furthermore, research indicates the effective role of social norms in moderating the impact of feedback on behavior. People show greater motivation and willingness to engage in environmental conservation programs by the participation of others in comparable situations. Field experiments prove the power of descriptive norms in encouraging hotel guests to reuse towels or reduce household water and energy consumption by exposing the water- or energy-saving behavior of a peer group (Goldstein et al., 2008; Ferraro & Price, 2013; Griskevicius et al., 2008). 
Nonetheless, social transformations require the support of institutions. Hence, voluntary mitigation on the individual’s level should be accompanied by stronger legislative and regulatory measures to enable long lasting social change by transferring the objectives of the countries’ climate guidelines to its citizens (Semenza, 2008).

An undesired occasion has turned out to be a new starting point for sustainability by proving that climate protection is possible if we change. Will today’s unintended chances inspire us to do better? Let’s seize the opportunity.


Beshears, John; Choi, James; Laibson, David et al. (2009): The Importance of Default Options for Retirement Saving Outcomes – Evidence from the United States (in: Brown, Jeffrey; Liebman, Jeffrey; Wise, David (2009): Social Security in a Changing Environment). University of Chicago Press, pp. 167-195.

Clayton, Susan; Devine-Wright, Patrick; Stern, Paul et al. (2015): Psychological research and global climate change. Nature Climate Change 5, pp. 640-646.

Ferraro, Paul; Price, Michael (2013): Using Nonpecuniary Strategies to Influence Behavior: Evidence from a Large‐Scale Field Experiment. Review of Economics and Statistics 95 (1), pp. 64-73.

Gardiner, Beth (National Geographic) (2020): Pollution made COVID-19 worse. Now, lockdowns are clearing the air [Accessed 14. May 2020].

Goldstein, Noah; Cialdini, Robert; Griskevicius, Vladas (2008): A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Journal of Consumer Research 35 (3), pp. 472-482.

Griskevicius, Vladas; Cialdini, Robert; Goldstein, Noah (2008): Social Norms: An underestimated and underemployed lever for managing climate change. International Journal of Sustainability Communication 3, pp. 5-13.

IOM (International Organization for Migration) (2020): DTM-Covid19 Travel Restrictions Output – 20 April 2020:—-20-april-2020 [Accessed 17. May 2020].

Lai, Chih-Cheng; Shih, Tzu-Ping; Ko, Wen-Chien et al. (2020): Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19): The epidemic and the challenges. International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents 55 (3), pp. 1-9.

Li, Qun; Guan, Xuhua; Wu, Peng et al. (2020): Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus – Infected Pneumonia. The New England Journal of Medicine 382, pp. 1199-1207.

Loewenstein, George; Weber, Elke; Hsee, Christopher et al. (2001): Risk as Feelings. Psychological Bulletin 127 (2), pp. 267-286.

NASA (2020): NASA Probes Environment, COVID-19 Impacts, Possible Links: [Accessed 14. May 2020].

Patel, Kasha (NASA Earth Observatory) (2020): How the Coronavirus Is (and Is Not) Affecting the Environment: [Accessed 14. May 2020].

Schill, Caroline; Anderies, John; Lindahl, Therese et al. (2019): A more dynamic understanding of human behavior for the Anthropocene. Nature Sustainability 2, pp. 1075-1082.

Semenza, Jan; Hall, David; Wilson, Daniel et al. (2008): Public Perception of Climate Change – Voluntary Mitigation and Barriers to Behavior Change. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35 (5), pp. 479-487.

Sunstein, Cass (2014): Nudging: A Very Short Guide. Journal of Consumer Policy 37, pp. 583-588.

Talmazan, Yuliya (NBC News) (2020): In Belarus, unlike most places, soccer plays on despite virus [Accessed 14. May 2020].

United Nations Environment Programme (2019): Five ways behavioural science can transform climate change action: [Accessed 18. May 2020].

Van Dalen, Hendrik; Henkens, Kène (2014): Comparing effects of defaults in organ donation systems. Social Science & Medicine 106, pp. 137-142.

Vollan, Björn (2020): Lecture Behavioral Economics and Sustainability. Philipps-University of Marburg. Summer Term 2020.

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