We need to talk about more than CO2 parts per million: Changing the conversation from recovery to re-imagination

Published 28 januari, 2021

Bregje van Veelen

Researcher at the Department of Earth Sciences, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, Uppsala University

Decarbonisation cannot be reduced to wind turbines and solar panels, as emissions are deeply embedded within the social rhythms of daily life. Bregje van Veelen, researcher at Uppsala University, explains why ’visions’ for sustainability are critical for exploring socio-spatial dimensions of climate action; changing the way we relate to climate.

What does the ’demise of Pret’ have to do with emissions? 

Last September, there was a sense of mild optimism in the air. It followed on from a summer where cases of Covid had been in decline, and attention centred on “saving” the economy. Within the United Kingdom, where I lived until the summer of 2020, concerns about the economy were most clearly expressed through a rather peculiar frame: that of the potential demise of ‘Pret’ – a sandwich chain found in most major UK cities, but especially London. It had seen a significant drop in demand during the first months of the pandemic, leading to the loss of 3000 jobs. Its decline, commentators pointed out, indicative of a decline of the broader ‘Pret economy’ – an economy built on office workers commuting into city centres, buying lunch in one of the many sandwich shops near their office. Then Covid happened. 

An empty London Underground. Photo by David Lundgren on Unsplash

In London, more than half of workers worked from home during the early months of the pandemic, a pattern reflected in other major urban centres.  As a result, newspapers in the UK, but also the US, Canada and Australia reported that major cities were turning into ‘ghost towns’. 

We are still waiting to learn exactly how this change in a daily rhythm, the shift from working in offices and other workplaces to working at home, has impacted carbon emissions in the long term. In the short-term, it seems like this shift has reduced the world’s annual emissions somewhat (WMO 2020). Moreover, what Covid has made visible, is how emissions are deeply intertwined with daily rhythms, embedded in broader socio-economic and spatial relations of work and life. The disruption to these rhythms has significantly impacted activities and emissions from a wide range of sectors that reach far beyond transport or energy. 

Take for example food and agriculture. It is increasingly evident that meat and dairy make up a substantial proportion of global emissions. In normal times a significant proportion of meat and dairy products are consumed in so-called institutional settings: school cafeterias, office canteens, as well as restaurants, and cafes like Pret. In the US, the biggest buyer of fluid milk in the United States is the National School Lunch Program. Those institutional buyers largely stopped buying milk. Of course, some of the demand shifted to the home, but probably not all: people have different eating habits at home than they have eaten out (Biermann and Rau 2020). While it is too early to draw general conclusions, it appears likely that eating out less might reduce emissions from food. 

But ‘the demise of Pret’ is not only important when we think about the emissions directly related to Pret, but also about all the activities tied up with buying a daily sandwich from a sandwich shop – particularly the daily commute from people to offices in central locations. Such offices are usually built using steel and concrete – both high carbon materials. As a result of people staying at home, the steel industry (responsible for about 8% of global emissions) expects a reduction in demand of about 5-10% this year, largely because of a drop in demand from the construction sector and automobile industry, who account for about two-thirds of steel demand. But what might the future hold? 

Building back better or Back to normal? 

With this understanding of how our daily rhythms and the wider expectation and relations of which they are part (expectations of a 9-5 working day, a daily commute, etc.), it then becomes clear that to Build back better, we ought to do away with our old rhythms, expectations and relations. It is therefore somewhat depressing to see how much attention appears to have been devoted to a return to the ‘old’ normal. In the UK, the government encouraged people back to the office, while cycle lanes that were installed during the pandemic were being ripped up again to make space for the cars that could be used to take workers to their offices. 

The 15-minute city, originating in Paris, suggests that one should be able to find most of life’s daily necessities within a fifteen-minute walk or bike ride.

There are, however, alternative ideas that are gaining traction. One such idea is the 15-minute city. Originating in Paris, it asks how people’s use of time can be re-organised to improve citizens’ lives and the environment. It suggests that one should be able to find most of life’s daily necessities within a fifteen-minute walk or bike ride. Similar ideas have also been proposed in Melbourne and Singapore.  

Such visions can be powerful for two reasons. First, once we notice how ‘carbon’ is everywhere, in the food we produce, the clothes we wear, the buildings we live and work in, the challenge of taking climate action can seem overwhelming. It is increasingly clear that even big challenges like transitioning from a fossil fuel-based energy system to one powered by renewables will not be sufficient. Instead, we’ll likely need to make many different changes to the ways our societies and economies are run, and we need visions and stories to help guide us through these. 

The second reason why visions like the 15-minute city can be powerful is that they are not visibly framed as low-carbon action, but rather, as enabling new desirable relations and rhythms of life in cities. Social scientists have long pushed for greater recognition of the role values, desires and culture play in shaping the potential for climate action. Such values extend beyond an individual’s identity, embedded in societal structures (Mylan 2016). Taking account of these dimensions helps to understand why carbon is so entrenched in so many places, from food to construction, but can also help us to understand how we might forge desirable alternatives (Bulkeley, Paterson and Stripple 2016). This is not to say the ideas such as the fifteen-minute city are perfect. It is not without its detractors (Delaleu 2020), and there are important equity dimensions to take into consideration.  

Photo by Les Corpographes on Unsplash

How can we start to implement visions of the future?  

How do we implement such broad visions, make them tangible, ‘materialise’ them? And how do they become ‘materialised’ in places as diverse as construction materials, the food on our plates, and the clothes on our backs? Once we understand that ‘decarbonisation’ cannot be reduced to wind turbines and solar panels, but requires action in nearly every aspect of our societies and economies, it becomes clear that individual, sector-based solutions alone are unlikely to be sufficient. What we need is the materialisation of these visions in a way that can address carbon in all its diverse shapes and forms. Materialisation is thus not only a task of material substitution – but also as the materialisation of, for example, new regulations or the implementation of new decision-making processes to develop regulatory instruments.  

As Hannah Knox powerfully argues in her recent book Thinking Like a Climate, climate action requires new modes of relating to climate. In other words, it requires a reworking of the relationship between knowing and acting on climate. Infrastructural trials, like ones that may characterise the implementation of the 15-minute city, offer a form of concrete political action in a space that is defined by simultaneous demands to change everything while also keeping everything the same.  

The success of such trials might not only be found in their immediate carbon reduction potential but in their ability to confront existing administrative and bureaucratic techniques for understanding and addressing issues. Rather than technical responses to climate science, centred around emissions reductions and parts per million, such new modes of doing have the potential to, what Knox (2020) calls, reimagine and reconfigure society in climatological terms

Such reconfiguring is not an easy or straightforward process. As my earlier example of the bike lanes in the UK show, infrastructural trials without a broader future vision can easily be undone. Without new modes of thinking and relating to the climate, calls to go back to normal can easily be overpowering. 

Dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us

Arundhati Roy (2020)

What does this mean about a post-pandemic recovery? First, and foremost, that it is time to retire the language of recovery, in favour of re-imagination. While the long-term implications of Covid on the climate are unclear, it is evident that the old normal was not a pleasant place for many humans and other species – so let’s not go back to that. As Arundhati Roy (2020) wrote earlier in the pandemic, we can choose to walk through this period, dragging our “dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us”. Or we can use the pandemic as a portal, a means to reflect and calibrate how we relate to climate and get ourselves ready to imagine another way. 

Bregje van Veelen
January 2021

About the author and the feature

Bregje van Veelen is a researcher at the Department of Earth Sciences, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, Uppsala University. Bregje is a social scientist with an interest in low carbon transitions and low carbon governance. She currently holds a Formas Mobility Grant for her project Post-carbon: Imagining the future to unmake the present. 



Biermann, G. and Rau, H., 2020. The meaning of meat:(Un) sustainable eating practices at home and out of home. Appetite, p.104730. 

Bulkeley, H., Paterson, M. and Stripple, J. eds., 2016. Towards a cultural politics of climate change: devices, desires and dissent. Cambridge University Press. 

Delaleu, A. 2020. La Ville du quart d’heure : utopie? fantasme? écran de fumée? Croniques d’architecture. Available at: https://chroniques-architecture.com/la-ville-du-quart-dheure-ecran-de-fumee/ 

Knox, H., 2020. Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change. Duke University Press. 

Mylan, J. 2016. Why reducing meat eating isn’t a response to climate change. Discovery Society, 36. Available at: https://discoversociety.org/2016/09/06/why-reducing-meat-eating-isnt-a-response-to-climate-change/ 

Romei, V., Burn-Murdoch, J. 2020. From peak city to ghost town: the urban centres hit hardest by Covid-19. Financial Times. 15/10/2020. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/d5b45dba-14dc-443b-8a8c-e9e9bbc3fb9a 

Roy, A. 2020. The pandemic is a portal. Financial Times. 03/04/2020. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca 

World Meteorological Organization (WMO). 2020. Carbon dioxide levels continue at record levels, despite COVID-19 lockdown [Press release], 23/11/2020. Available at: https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/carbon-dioxide-levels-continue-record-levels-despite-covid-19-lockdown 


Urban Readings

Urban Readings is an initiative by SLU Urban Futures. The series brings together a diversity of voices, in and outside of academia, to reflect upon current issues within the urban realm. The project engages writers across disciplines to capture synergies between knowledge areas and understand the effects of urbanization, and the interconnection of societal, environmental and economic processes. The theme for the winter of 20/21,’Transformation to new realities from COVID – green or growth?’, is a continuation of the first theme initiated in the ”Covid-19 spring of 2020”.


Do you miss something here? Would you like to contribute? Please let us know: urbanfutures@slu.se

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap