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Sustainable City Investments Drive COVID-19 Recovery, Global Coalition Concludes


Municipalities are the cornerstone of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and low-carbon investments and infrastructure will deliver the jobs, resilience, and support for marginalized and vulnerable populations the Trudeau government is expected to emphasize in its Speech from the Throne next week, according to the lead author of a new report on greening the global recovery through cities.

“We need to convince national governments that if they commit to low-carbon investment, it not only has the opportunity to reduce emissions,” economist Manisha Gulati, senior advisor at the London, UK-based Coalition for Urban Transitions, told The Energy Mix. “It also creates jobs, it supports marginalized or vulnerable populations, and it enhances the resilience of the economy, beyond just dealing with the pandemic.”

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COVID-19 “has shone a spotlight on cities as the confluence of people, economy, and assets; when they stop working, so does the global economy,” the Coalition adds [2] in a summary of the report. “National government leadership and investment is critical to complement the green investments that mayors and local governments are making, or plan to make, within their urban recovery strategies to build a sustainable and resilient recovery.”

The report identifies seven priority areas for investment where national governments “can yield substantial economic dividends, rapidly create and protect millions of jobs for vulnerable populations, and deliver quick, durable, and inclusive economic, health, and environmental benefits for their citizens, all whilst contributing to long-term urban resilience.” The list reinforces the elements that Canadian green recovery advocates have been identifying for months, including:

• Low- and zero-carbon construction and retrofits that typically deliver 18 new jobs per US$1 million invested;

• Clean mobility strategies that combine urban rail and bus rapid transit, electric vehicle manufacturing, and expanded EV charging networks;

• Renewable energy investments to decarbonize urban electricity and serve as an “important driver of job creation”, at lower cost than fossil-generated power;

• Pedestrian and cycling schemes that require only modest investment and can help “keep cities connected during a crisis”;

• Nature-based climate solutions that deliver rapid benefits and “could improve the health of millions of people,” reducing heat wave deaths by 2.4 to 5.6%;

• Circular economy measures that promote recycling, reuse, and repair;

• Clean technology research and development.

While the Coalition’s research has not focused specifically on Canada, Gulati said the challenges the government is grappling with are familiar.

“One way to look at it is that people need to eat,” she said. “They do need income. So at first glance, connecting the climate argument to recovery from the COIVD-19 crisis seems a strange.”

But “that doesn’t address the other types of crisis we’re facing, and we’ve seen that these different types of crises are interlinked with each other. Just as the pandemic has led to economic slowdown and had an impact on health, jobs, and peoples’ incomes, the climate crisis is going to do the same.” So “we need to look at how the economy and health and climate intersect” and “start addressing them as a systemic issue, rather than treating all of them as separate problems to solve.”

If governments try to deal with the pandemic in isolation from the other, multiple crises that preceded it, she warned, “a one-way argument isn’t going to swing it.” But “the beauty of low-carbon investment and infrastructure is that they do support communities. They do create jobs. They reduce emissions. And they deliver health benefits such as air quality.”

“Investing now in resilient urban infrastructure and system preparedness pays itself back many times over,” the Coalition states [3]. But “despite the clear immediate and longer-term opportunities available, economic rescue and recovery packages have generally not been explicitly directed towards cities,” with only 7% of the stimulus measures documented in the report targeted to urban areas and only 16% of that investment designated as green.

“This is a significant missed opportunity, given that the current spending window is unlikely to be repeated as government budgets across many countries become squeezed post-stimulus,” the report notes. It runs the risk “that the pattern of recovery will delay countries even further on their path to a sustainable (urban) future, or lock them in entirely to an unsustainable pathway.”