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Urbanisation

The Planet of Cities: The net-zero transition and post-pandemic prosperity

In this month's column, urbanist Greg Clark considers how the pandemic experience has served to refocus attention on the climate emergency.

Greg Clark
4 September 2020

As the western world moves into the second half-year of COVID-19, one senses widespread expectation that the pandemic legacy must include lasting environmental dividends. Sustainability has become a key motif of recovery strategies at regional, national and international level. Perhaps most notably, “Build Back Better”, a phrase first popularised as the European curve was flattening, has now been adopted as Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign slogan. It’s a prime example of how actors from across the spectrum of interests are now borrowing from the resilience phrasebook.

So, why is it that this apparently renewed global commitment to addressing climate change should have been prompted by a public health emergency?

Vulnerability to the virus is clearly shaped, at least partially, by environmental factors. Those who suffer from pre-existing respiratory conditions are among the groups most susceptible to infection, and most likely to suffer severe complications. We know that there is a high correlation between respiratory illness and air quality. It can therefore be confidently stated that climate change makes you sick.

Vulnerability to COVID-19 is clearly shaped, at least partially, by environmental factors. It can therefore be confidently stated that climate change makes you sick.

We can’t yet be quite so confident as to the origins of the virus. Scientific opinion remains divided on the exact details of the background story. Nonetheless, it seems quite clear that disruption to the animal kingdom caused by human dietary preferences forms part of the picture. One can’t discuss the roots of the pandemic without considering the manifold ways in which our food consumption patterns interplay with delicate natural ecosystems. Once a fringe lifestyle choice, veganism has truly “gone mainstream” over recent years. The array of available meat-substitute protein products is seemingly ever-expanding, and significant sums of money are being invested into innovative lab-grown, or in-vitro, meat solutions. The COVID-19 crisis will only accelerate these trends.

As I have said previously in this column, lockdown has prompted a largescale experiment in new modes of living and working. This new low-contact, low-mobility way of life has resulted in significant carbon savings (though perhaps not quite as significant as many would imagine). At the same time, productivity losses have been lower than might reasonably have been feared. In other words, we have proven that economic productivity need not be quite so carbon intensive.

It’s also true that extreme climate events often create conditions perfect for the transmission of viruses. Climate refugees fleeing flood, drought or famine are often resettled in camps where communicable diseases thrive. It’s a point beautifully made by my fellow WBEF columnist Mandakini Surie in her piece last week. Increased environmental volatility could very well aid the continuation of this pandemic, and cause the creation of other, new public health emergencies.

These are among the numerous reasons why the link between human and planetary health has been so heavily underlined during this crisis. Climate adaptation and pandemic mitigation are, in effect, inseparable concerns.

In recent years, we have made substantial progress on understanding the relationship between urbanisation and climate change. The zero-carbon cities agenda, supported by the European Union and C40 network, among other bodies, is a key outcome of this.

In 2019, the Coalition for Urban Transitions published Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity, a report that dispels the common assumption that zero-carbon commitments inhibit economic growth prospects. The report very effectively identifies the six steps necessary to move cities towards net zero-carbon, while creating jobs and stimulating productivity gains. As a result of this detailed, methodological work, some 500 cities globally have made zero-carbon pledges. The six steps are as follows:

  • Decarbonisation of the energy supply, with cities making a full transition to clean and renewable energy sources.
  • Decarbonisation of transport through the electrification of transportation modes, the promotion of shared mobility and investment into active transport infrastructure.
  • Decarbonisation of the real estate and construction sectors through use of locally sourced sustainable materials and adoption of circular economy principles in the development of energy positive buildings.
  • Elimination of waste, including food waste and plastics, and favoured use of recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion over landfill.
  • Optimisation of logistics processes and commercial freight through adoption of low emissions vehicles, night time delivery and load pooling.
  • Reduction of water waste through optimisation of treatment processes, infrastructure renewal and wastewater reuse schemes in the agriculture sector.

This vision of the clean, connected and compact city, powered by renewable energy and adjusted for liveable density and minimal waste is ambitious but, crucially, achievable. Megacities including New York, London, Paris, Seoul and Sao Paolo have pledged to get there by 2050. Some smaller cities are aiming to move even faster. In Copenhagen, municipal leaders believe that they can reach carbon neutrality in just 5 years’ time. The Danish capital is already one of the world’s greenest cities. It is surely no coincidence that it is also frequently listed among the cities most likely to emerge from the pandemic with an enhanced global reputation.

Copenhagen aims to reach carbon neutrality in just 5 years’ time. The Danish capital is already one of the world’s greenest cities. It is surely no coincidence that it is also among the cities most likely to emerge from the pandemic with an enhanced global reputation.

As well as being cleaner and more prosperous, the net-zero city will be healthier and more resilient to the spread of serious illness. Climate adaptation and pandemic mitigation are inseparable concerns; I make no apologies for repeating the statement. COVID-19 is, above all, an environmental crisis. That this fact does not seem to have been lost on policymakers, business leaders and the general public gives us good cause to be encouraged.