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Is COVID-19 shifting attitudes towards sustainability? A case study from Amsterdam

(Authors: Sonja Fransen & Beatriz Cardoso Fernandes, UNU-MERIT with Dominique Jolivet, University of Amsterdam)

Can the global health pandemic provide a ‘window of opportunity’ to change the way we think about sustainability? A new study by researchers from the Migration, Transformation and Sustainability (MISTY) project and UNU-MERIT finds that for almost a quarter of Amsterdam residents surveyed, the coronavirus has increased their interest in sustainability.

On 17 March 2020, the Mayor of Amsterdam announced new measures to contain the coronavirus, including the closure of schools, restaurants, and cultural venues. In July 2020, researchers from the Migration, Transformation and Sustainability (MISTY) project sent an online survey to members of the Amsterdam City Research Panel asking them what impact the coronavirus crisis was having on their lives, set against the broader backdrop of sustainability (understood here in terms of social, economic, and environmental sustainability). Members of the Amsterdam City Research panel are ‘Amsterdammers’ who regularly participate in different online surveys about varying subjects related to the city. Our sample included 1,381 individuals, of whom 20% are migrants, 53% are Dutch-born with parents also born in the Netherlands, and 24% are Dutch-born with parents born abroad. The majority of the sample is highly educated, in a rather comfortable economic situation, and aged between 35 and 64 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Profile for majority of survey respondents. Source: MISTY Project

We first asked how the COVID-19 crisis had impacted respondents’ health, income, and social lives. Four months after the initial outbreak, almost 60% were feeling the negative effects of the pandemic in at least one of these dimensions — more than 16% had experienced negative effects on their health and almost 21% on their household incomes. COVID-19 restrictions hit their social lives in particular — 43% declared a worsening of social contacts. This confirms recent studies on the impact of the various COVID-19 measures on subjective well-being and social isolation of individuals. International migrants and second-generation migrants were the most affected in Amsterdam (Figure 2). Apart from these negative effects, there were some positive impacts: 12% of respondents reported that social contact with neighbours had improved, while 8% said that they appreciated the natural environment in their neighbourhoods more during the COVID-19 crisis.

Figure 2: Number of respondents reporting negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic. Source: MISTY Project

Can a global health crisis affect our attitudes towards sustainability?

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for researchers to study how a global health crisis affects the way people think about sustainability issues. Academic literature shows that attitudes are not stable over time. They are dependent on one’s social environment — and a change in this environment can change the way individuals think about certain social issues. In fact, major ‘shocks’ can profoundly change individual attitudes.

In our study, almost 24% of Amsterdammers reported more interest in sustainability issues compared to the start of the pandemic. When asked why, many respondents said that the pandemic had been a ‘wake-up call’, prompting the realisation that we, as global citizens, should take better care of the environment and each other:

“The crisis makes obvious both some of the ways in which our way of life is not sustainable, and the capacity we have to adapt quickly to a new environment with increased constraints.” (Male, 31 years old, first-generation migrant)

“The coronavirus has exposed in a painful way that a limit has been reached with what the earth can handle from humanity.” (Male, 52 years old, second-generation migrant)

Some individuals also mentioned that simply spending more time at home gave them more time to think about ‘larger’ societal questions such as pollution, overconsumption, and social ties in their neighbourhoods and city. Contrary to our expectations, those who were more affected by the pandemic (socially or economically) were not more likely to become more concerned with sustainability issues. Instead, higher educated individuals and those with migration backgrounds reported increasing awareness of sustainability issues. Moreover, the neighbourhoods in which people resided played a big role as well. For example, individuals residing in the centre of Amsterdam expressed more concerns compared with those living in the suburbs. Further research on this topic will have to show why this is the case.

A turning point in our views on sustainability?

Apart from expressing their fears and concerns, many Amsterdam residents also articulated their hopes that this crisis would create a turning point in our thinking on sustainability at local, national, and global levels. Whether the global health pandemic will support lasting transformations to sustainability remains to be seen. Despite reporting increasing awareness of the importance of leading sustainable lives, few respondents (on average between 5-10%) reported changing their actual behaviour since March 2020 in terms of consumption, energy use, or recycling. This shows that changing attitudes do not necessarily translate into action.


This article was first posted here as part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19. As a build-up to International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020, the series examines these connections at local and global levels, highlights impacts on migrants, and provides evidence-based insights for United Nations member states, governments, and policymakers.

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