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Greening the Urban COVID-19 Recovery

Dr Ellie Cosgrave

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, there has been a raft of publications from academia, INGOs and governments that outline the catastrophic impacts of the virus in economic terms, the vast potential for expanding inequalities and the risk of undermining climate action, which was gaining huge public support and government backing before the crisis hit. Many of these same publications assert that there is an opportunity to use the stimulus packages and urban transformation programmes associated with recovery to double-down on climate action and ‘build back better;’ a uniting and convening principle of post disaster reconstruction (Markard and Rosenbloom, 2020). Whilst there is some disagreement about the nature of this opportunity, there is a clear consensus that outcomes will be dependent on decisive, robust and substantial government action and investment (Hepburn et al., 2020; Rosenbloom and Markard, 2020; Acuto, 2020; New Climate Institute, 2020).

The risk when faced with economic crisis like these, is that governments attempt to stabilise incumbent industries, technologies and infrastructure practices (which are often carbon intensive) rather than capitalising on an opportunity for transformation towards more sustainable modes of production. These stabilising strategies were demonstrated in the 2008 global financial crisis and the Millennium drought in Australia (Rosenbloom and Markard, 2020).

Policy Trajectories

Early signs indicate that some countries are set on repeating this pattern for the Covid-19 response. The United States for example, seem poised to direct stimulus funding to fossil fuel industries to the tune of $2 trillion USD (Shepardson and Klayman, 2020). Similarly, China has authorised five new coal-fired power plants and Australia are pushing for the expansion of coal mines and LNG export facilities, South Korean government is planning a USD 825 million bailout of Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction Co. without any condition to promote renewables (Farand, 2020) (New Climate Institute). Meanwhile, some countries have also called for the European Green Deal to be delayed or scrapped as a result of the fallout from the pandemic (Colli, 2020). While all G20 nations had signed such fiscal measures into law, earmarking a total of over US$7.3 trillion in spending, a study from Hepburn et al. (2020) found that only 4% of these were ‘green’ in that they have the potential to reduce long term GHG emissions.

Not only do these approaches to recovery fail to address climate action, they also often result in ‘stranded assets’ for cities, who have to deal with the long-term maintenance of new infrastructure assets that do not meet their needs, or lock-ins to what Layzell and Beaumier (2018)refer to as ‘dead-end pathways’.

However, many analysists and city officials are noting a great opportunity- citing large scale crises such as the 2018 Spanish Flu (which revolutionised the role of government in healthcare) as a moment of transformation (Budd and Ison, 2020) (Colli, 2020) (Piccard and Timmermans, 2020) (Greenpeac

e, 2020). As such, they are calling for a green economic stimulus programmes that prioritise transformation to a green economy and incentives sustainable development including new business models, and industrial capacity in renewable energy technology, energy storage, electric vehicles, and charging stations through tax credits, for example (Rosenbloom and Markard, 2020). Such investments could result in a greater number of jobs, as clean energy infrastructure is often labour intensive - one model suggests that every $1m in spending generates 7.49 full-time jobs in renewables infrastructure, 7.72 in energy efficiency, but only 2.65 in fossil fuels (Garrett-Peltier, 2017)

There are many examples of governments taking the lead in progressive recovery policies to the current crisis. For example, A ‘green recovery alliance’ has been launched in the European Parliament, made up of MEPs, CEOs, business associations, trade unions, NGOs and think tanks, which was a response to an appeal from national environment ministers from EU member states, calling for the European Green Deal to be put at the centre of the post-COVID-19 recovery (Colli, 2020). In Africa, The African Union and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has agreed to work closely to advance renewable energy across the continent to bolster Africa’s response to COVID-19 (IRENA, 2020).

We can also look to previous crises for examples of how to leverage policies for examples of effective practice in this area. For example after the 2008 crash, Germany substantially expanded its programme to promote energy efficient retrofits through fiscal measures and concessional loans between 2008 and 2010 (New Climate Institute, 2020). Similarly, 200,000 green jobs were created through the American Recovery Act of 2009, which promoted the improvement of residential energy efficiency of over 800,000 homes between 2009 and 2012 (New Climate Institute, 2020).

An Urban Crisis

It is clear that despite much of the fiscal power for recovery laying with national governments, Covid-19 is an urban crisis. As well as being the focal points of the most severe outbreaks due to the density of cities, urban governments are also operating at the frontline of the Covid-19 response, where much of the loss of life, job losses, housing precariousness and need for mobility transformation is centred. As such, city authorities need to firstly identify what action lie within their direct control, regulatory power or sphere of influence to take clear action to ensure the long-term sustainability of their communities.

Some cities have taken decisive short term action to transform urban space to support active travel options. For example, the Mayor of London announced the fast-tracking of the transformation of London’s roads, giving space to new cycle lanes and wider pavements; a series of temporary bike routes; and a commitment to sustainable travel to be at the heart of London’s recovery (Greater London Authority, 2020). However, it remains to be seen how this will be maintained in the longer term, especially as revenues from public transport face steep decline.

Secondly, on issues where cities have less fiscal authority, they need to gain a deep understanding of the impact of decisions ma

de by higher tiers of government for their cities, gather compelling evidence and develop a clear and united narrative in order to effectively lobby their national governments.


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