1. Introduction
  2. Health
  3. Economy, Fair Work and Business, Culture
  4. Communities, Poverty, Human Rights
  5. Children, Education
  6. Environment, International
  7. Unequal impacts across the National Outcomes


What COVID-19 may mean for Scotland’s Wellbeing in the Future

Environment, International



In Environment, International


  • The pandemic and societal response has resulted in short-term impacts on energy use, emissions and some kinds of air pollutants. However evidence from Scotland indicates these changes were driven by factors other than environmental concerns (e.g. having more time during lockdown, changes in routine)
  • Whether any of these short-term changes are maintained and feed through into longer term environmental outcomes, are highly uncertain and depend on the evolution of the pandemic, the societal response, and whether any positive behaviour changes are maintained
  • In terms of openness of public institutions, COVID-19 has significantly impacted on pre-existing means of data collection that is relied upon for decision making, performance assessment and scrutiny, however it has also underscored the value of responsive evidence
  • Trust in the Scottish Government has remained relatively high through the pandemic period, and the UK has seen an increase in reputational ranking perception in 2020, when compared with some other countries
  • Reductions in international travel meant prospective migrants for work or study delayed plans


Related outcomes

  • Scotland’s environment and the factors that determine it influence health outcomes through transport mode choice (e.g. active travel versus private car use) and the acute and longer term health effects of poor air quality
  • A failure to respond effectively and consistently over the medium and longer term to the challenge of global climate change would have negative impacts across the National Outcomes as the habitability of the planet becomes increasingly affected
  • The degree to which decision makers and those who hold them to account have access to timely, accurate and relevant data to inform policy decisions has been highlighted by the crisis, and is also relevant across all outcomes


More evidence

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to progress, data on impact changes regularly. The sources below are regularly updated.



Energy and material use, emissions and air quality

Following the initial lockdown, electricity use in Scotland declined significantly. Since lockdown till the end of Phase 1[i] the average daily electricity demand in Scotland in 2020 was 16% lower than the equivalent period in 2020. While more people were working from home, this increase in domestic consumption was offset by inactivity from shutdown sectors[ii]. The degree to which these demand reductions are sustained as the pandemic evolves, and whether they then translate to positive longer-term environmental impacts is uncertain and contingent on both the evolution of the pandemic and the societal response to it.


The pandemic has seen a surge in the consumption of certain kinds of single use plastics, including personal protective equipment[iii] [iv], which may offset some of the environmental gains resulting from reduced energy use.


The lead-in time required to provide accurate estimations of emissions for Scotland is substantial, and estimates are not yet available. On a global level, it has been estimated that the world-wide response to the pandemic has led to a reduction of both greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollutants. [v] However, a World Meteorological Organisation compilation of climate science[vi] has concluded that, while overall emission reductions in 2020 will lead to a small reduction in the annual increase of GHG emissions, it will be insufficient to address global warming.

A UK estimation of air pollutants[vii] from June 2020 suggested there had been significant changes in the emissions of air pollutants from several sectors, particularly transport, but that data was still limited. It suggested that, once weather effects are accounted for, reductions in urban environment concentrations of nitrogen oxides (NOx) were around 30-40%. A study in Scotland[viii] also found that nitrogen dioxideconcentrations were significantly lower in the 2020 lockdown period than the previous three years. However, despite substantial reduction in traffic volume during that period, concentrations of an air pollutant of particular health concern (small particulates - PM2.5) in the 2020 lockdown period were closer to those in previous years. Similar results for Scotland were found in other studies.[ix] [x] [xi]

Transport patterns

Transport mode choice has a large impact on environmental outcomes. Transport (excluding international) was the largest contributor to Scottish greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, showing only a 4.9% decrease since 1990, compared to the overall trend of a 45.4% decrease. [xii]


The pandemic has resulted in substantial shifts in travel patterns, driven by the legally enforceable restrictions on certain kinds of travel during phases of the pandemic, advisory guidance recommending against travel, and individual behaviours and choices around avoiding some types of transport.


During the first six months of the pandemic (March to September 2020):[xiii]


  • Car traffic dropped to around 25% of 2019 levels, but had recovered to 91% of 2019 levels by the end of the six month period. Partly as a result of changing work patterns the morning peak for road traffic has become less pronounced than before the pandemic
  • Walking levels were consistently lower than on equivalent days in 2019, partly explained by fewer people walking to work and education and the location of counters potentially underestimating recreational walking during the pandemic
  • Cycling activity was higher than 2019 for most of the six month period
  • Bus patronage declined sharply in March to 15% of its pre-pandemic level  Concessionary bus travel declined rapidly also, but by the end of the six month period it had recovered to 56% of equivalent 2019 levels
  • Rail patronage dropped in March with passengers numbers falling to 8% of levels seen in equivalent weekends in 2019. It was only after entering phase 3 of the route map in July that patronage rose above 20% of 2019 levels
  • Ferry use fell, with CalMac and Northlink passenger numbers falling to less than 4% of equivalent 2019 levels. However as tourism reopened the numbers of cars carried increased rapidly, with CalMac carrying nearly as many cars as in 2019 and Northlink around 80% of 2019 levels
  • Flight numbers fell at the start of lockdown to around 10% of 2019 levels. By the end of the six month period, they had increased to 40% of 2019 levels


Concerns about using public transport remain high, although appear to be decreasing. In the period 4 to 9 November 75% of people were very or fairly concerned about contracting or spreading COVID-19 while using public transport. In the period 4 to 9 November[xiv], 92% of people have left home at least once in the past seven days, with the main trip purposes being to shop for groceries (88%) and outdoor exercise (70%).


While travel patterns clearly have changed as the pandemic has evolved, through a combination of compliance with guidance and risk avoidance behaviour, it is difficult to project to what this may mean for the future and how likely it is that potential benefits (e.g. active travel promotion) will outweigh potential risks (e.g. individuals preferring private car travel over public transport due to safety concerns).

Reported climate change behaviours in response to the pandemic

Qualitative interviews on climate change behaviours[xv] suggest restrictions on movement and an increase in the amount of time participants were spending at home had knock-on effects for almost every climate change behaviour. These shifts had changed participants’ travel modes, how they shopped, ate, and used resources such as water, electricity and packaging materials.


It is important to note that factors other than concern for the environment were driving behaviour change.  Key factors included:


  • having more time as a result of not commuting or working less (and sustaining behaviours dependent on having time)
  • the influence of family and friends, concerns about safety and perceived convenience or inconvenience


Between July-August and September-October there had been an increase in driving and a decrease in walking and cycling. There had also, to a lesser extent, been some changes in public transport use and shopping habits.


These changes were largely attributed to a change in participants’ routines as a result of work, school and gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. Increased driving was largely attributed to changes to working patterns, with some participants returning to work after having been furloughed, and others experiencing increased working hours as businesses had become busier with the easing of lockdown restrictions.


A reduction in walking and cycling was partly due to participants having less free time than they did earlier in lockdown; with working hours increasing and children being back at school, participants felt they now had less time on their hands. For example, one participant described having cycled more at the beginning of lockdown because “life had slowed down” and she had more time, but that her return to work meant that “time is now in much shorter supply.”  Where changes in behaviours had occurred, these tended to be heavily influenced by old routines being re-established, meaning less free time. Environmental considerations were typically secondary to other motivations, if mentioned at all. 

Outdoor recreation

During the initial lockdown period, a survey[xvi] found that both daily and weekly measures of outdoor visit participation were higher than might have been expected at the time of year. 34% of people took daily visits for exercise with 19% making no visits at all. Compared to the same period in 2019, 35% of the population spent more time outdoors than usual during lockdown while 43% spent less time outdoors than usual.


Women, younger age groups, families and people in good health were most likely to report spending more time outdoors. People aged 70 and over and those who were not in good health were most likely to report spending less time outdoors than usual.

Levels of participation in short walks, cycling and jogging were higher than usual with people spending more time visiting local parks and woods. Visits to coastal locations and to more remote or rural places decreased as did visits involving off-road cycling, longer walks and hillwalking.


Around half of the population (49%) expected that the amount of time they spend visiting the outdoors for leisure, recreation or exercise will be greater after lockdown than it was before.

Open and connected

The National Performance Framework and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The National Performance Framework and its open and transparent reporting on performance is one aspect of Scotland’s contribution to further trust in public organisations, and promotion of Scotland’s place in the world in alignment with the UN SDGs.[xvii] The 17 SDGs and associated targets and indicators are intended to address the biggest challenges facing the planet, including climate change.


The pandemic has impacted the data collection sources relied on by the NPF (for example, through the suspension of face-to-face data collection for major population surveys and the census). However, it has also highlighted the value of different, more responsive, data sources – such as those that feature throughout this report and those that form the basis of the “Four Harms” COVID-19 dashboard.[xviii] The value of responsive data to inform decisions has been highlighted by the pandemic.

Trust in public institutions and reputation

Since August, the proportion of people in Scotland who said they trusted the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s best interests has remained consistently high.[xix] However there has been a gradual decline from 78% at the end of July to 66% in early December. Women are more likely than men to say they trust the Scottish Government.


The Nation Brands Index for 2020[xx], a measure of public perceptions of a country’s reputation across six areas of national competence (culture, exports, governance, investment and immigration, people, and tourism) found that Germany retained its top position while the UK as a whole moved to second place (up from fourth, recording its best performance to date) gaining reputation on the governance, culture, people and tourism measures. In this index, a change in national ranking can be due to a changing score for that nation, or changing scores for other nations, as it is a comparative measure. Ranking changes can occur as a result of small changes in scores and a nation’s rank may improve even if its overall score decreases.

Scotland's population

Prior to the pandemic, Scotland’s population was at a record high at 5.46 million (at mid-2019), with all of the growth driven by migration.[xxi] There was no natural growth with deaths outnumbering births. Population change varied across the country, and while there was a reduction in the number of council areas experiencing population decline over the year to mid-2019,[xxii] it is projected that by mid-2028 more council areas, concentrated mainly in the west and south-west of Scotland, will experience decline than in previous years. [xxiii]


Whilst the impact of the pandemic on Scotland’s overall population is not yet reflected in the official estimates or projections, National Records of Scotland continue to monitor how migration is changing. Early insights from Civil Aviation Authority data[xxiv] show there has been widespread decline in international air travel with a reduction of over 98% in monthly passenger arrivals at Scottish airports between April to June 2020 compared to the same months in 2019.


A short term impact on international travel has been a fall in outward migration, with potential migrants forced to delay plans[xxv]and flows of seasonal migrant workers dropping sharply.[xxvi] Migration to study is also expected to fall in the short term.[xxvii] Universities Scotland has suggested 50% drop in the Scottish sector’s intake of international students in 2020-21 as a “mid-range” estimate.[xxviii] A potential future reduction in migration has the potential to disproportionately affect some areas of Scotland more than others, depending on their demographic and economic profile.


[i] See for details of Scotland’s route map


[iii] Increased plastic pollution due to COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and recommendations (

[iv] COVID-19 Pandemic Repercussions on the Use and Management of Plastics - PubMed (







[xi] Transboundary air pollution continues despite Covid-19 lockdown | Scotland's environment web


[xiii] COVID-19: Scotland’s transport and travel trends during the first six months of the pandemic. Transport Scotland.

[xiv] COVID-19 Public Attitudes Survey Data: Wave 10 (

[xv] Ipsos MORI and Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh (Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation), internal interim report of findings from Phase 1 (Jul/Aug 2020) and Phase 2 (Sep/Oct 2020) of ongoing research for Scottish Government via ClimateXChange. Phases 3 and 4 of this project to follow, with a full report of findings due to be published in 2021.

[xvi] NatureScot Research Report 1252 - Monitoring the impact of Coronavirus and social distancing | NatureScot













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