Jul 15, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Global mayors call for green investments in COVID-19 recovery efforts

Illustration of skyscraper covered with plants
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Urban economies need to be rebuilt to prioritize green investments in order to create a more resilient, just society that can withstand global shocks, argue the mayors of many of the world's biggest cities in a report out Wednesday.

Why it matters: "A return to 'business as usual' would not just be a monumental failure of imagination, but lock in the inequities laid bare by the pandemic and the inevitability of more devastating crises due to the climate breakdown," the group of mayors concludes.

Background: The report represents the recommendations of a COVID-19 recovery task force launched in April by C40 Cities, a network of mayors committed to meeting at a local level the goals of the Paris Agreement — to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and be carbon-neutral by 2050.

Recommendations include:

  • Investing in green jobs and clean energy, and providing job training for people to move from high-pollution industries to sustainable ones.
  • Improving equitable public services, such as efficient and safe mass transit, while reclaiming roads for non-car infrastructure.
  • Creating "15-minute cities" where residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from home.
  • Emphasizing green building by investing in parks, green roofs, permeable pavements and other infrastructure to reduce the risks of extreme heat, drought and flooding.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the link between public health, the environment and the economy.

  • For example, exposure to poor air quality has predisposed some — particularly those in low-income neighborhoods with higher pollution levels — to more severe COVID-19 outcomes.
  • Widespread fears about public transit has helped drive up the use of personal vehicles in cities that have reopened, damaging efforts to reduce reliance on emission-emitting cars.
  • The economic fallout from the outbreak could lead to an estimated 100 million city dwellers falling into poverty.

Where it stands: A number of C40 mayors are already overseeing efforts in line with some of the recommendations.

  • Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has planned 203 miles of bike paths allowing citizens to reach the city's parks, and she aims to plant enough trees in vulnerable zones to have tree canopy cover 25% of the city.
  • Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has adopted the '"15-minute city" idea with plans to add offices and co-working hubs and encourage remote work, use nightclubs as gyms during the day, and have schools serve as parks and play spaces over the weekend.
  • Lisbon Mayor Fernando Medina is enhancing public transit safety with new cleaning protocols and route adjustments during rush hours and reducing ridership to two-thirds capacity. Lisbon added new bus lanes and is buying more trams and electric buses than previously planned.
  • Seoul is improving municipal buildings' energy efficiency and introducing greenhouse gas emissions caps. The measures are expected to create 20,000 green jobs by 2022.

"We need good ideas to spread quickly, particularly at this moment," said David Miller, C40 director of international diplomacy.

Yes, but: There's only so much cities can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which don't recognize country boundaries, let alone city limits. Ultimately, it will take at least state or regional action, and eventually federal leadership to mandate emissions cuts, to make a big difference at the local level, notes Axios energy reporter Amy Harder.

The bottom line: City leaders can spearhead change, but it takes the collaboration of banks, regulators, corporations and residents to make significant changes to zoning, lending and building practices that perpetuate today's inequities.

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