How will COVID-19 change long-term efforts to address climate change? Is the current Coronavirus pandemic a prelude to the climate disasters cities will face in the future? On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, NLC Sustainability and Resilience experts reflect on how COVID-19 will change the way cities mitigate and adapt to climate and environmental policy.
The Future is Local
By Anna Marandi
There is a surreal element to this 50th anniversary of Earth Day – all 7.8 billion of us in full pandemic mode, struggling for survival, meaning, and community. In truth, I’m concerned about the reverberating impacts the “pause” will have on our cities and on climate efforts more broadly, but I want to believe that at the local level, we can continue to drive these initiatives—not in spite of the pandemic, but because of COVID-19.
This pandemic is not a dress rehearsal for climate change – this is part of the global climate crisis that includes massive, anthropogenic transformations in our natural world. We live in an interconnected social and ecological system where deforestation for beef ranching and palm oil as well as higher temperatures contribute to vector-borne and zoonotic diseases and ultimately, to increased transmission among humans. The same vectors that were left uncorrected after SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, and Zika have now brought the human world to its knees.
As individuals, we live many steps removed from the complex systems that provide us with our food and products, a knowledge gap that makes good (sustainable, harm-free) choices a challenge. We complain about toilet paper shortages but have no idea which old-growth forests were demolished for it. Here’s where smart policies can rein in harmful practices that lead to pandemics and exacerbate climate impacts.
We must all find openings where we can. Local leaders are holding daily Facebook briefings and have the power to make informed, positive changes; city sustainability departments, chief resilience officers and other staff already have thoughtful plans and the expertise to execute; and residents can operate with the force and momentum of a giant kicked out its sleep. There is the potential for a major cultural shift towards more resilient and equitable community-level sharing economies.
Still, it’s a critical moment where federal-level decisions could make or break city budgets. Fortunately, some may be able to use innovative financing methods for larger resilience projects, or form partnerships with community-based organizations to increase social connectivity and resident preparedness. Local governments will likely prioritize initiatives that create new jobs and save money and lives in the long run.
We must ask ourselves, what is our desired destination? Can we leverage this once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our local communities and better understand our relationship with the natural world?
Keeping up the Bipartisan Efforts on Climate Action
By Carolyn Berndt
With this year’s Earth Day theme focused on climate action, it’s a matter of when, not if, the federal government will enact comprehensive climate policy around greenhouse gas mitigation, adaptation and resilience.
As recently as January, we saw a bipartisan plan for reducing emissions in the power sector, with a focus on innovative clean energy technologies. Also in January House Democrats released a legislative framework for addressing climate change through economy-wide solutions. And in February, House Republicans unveiled a package of bills aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
The coronavirus delays, but doesn’t stop, this federal action. While we’ve hit the pause button on many aspects of our daily lives, there is, in fact, much on Congress’s “must do” list this year, and we can’t lose the momentum on climate action.
As the southeast and Gulf Coast are experiencing extreme heat and record-breaking temperatures this week, along with recent intense rainfall, severe thunderstorms and tornados across the south, it brings a sharp focus on the need to build community resilience in the face of these extreme weather events. In the aftermath of the devastating 2017 hurricane season, in which three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the U.S., there was renewed bipartisan support for strengthening our nation’s infrastructure to make our communities and economy more resilient. We must continue to build on this effort.
Congress needs to double down and partner with local governments and support local action on climate change adaptation and resilience.
Cities, towns and villages are still committed to moving forward on climate action, and the coronavirus gives local leaders the opportunity to rethink how they achieve their ambitious goals. It’s an opportunity to reshape the economy to be more equitable and sustainable. This Earth Day let’s plan for the kind of world we want over the course of the next 50 years – isn’t it nice to see those beautiful city skylines?
2020 was supposed to be a benchmark year for attaining sustainability and climate goals. U.N. has postponed its meeting this year, there is public support and local government commitment to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. I can think of many words to describe 2020 so far, but as we celebrate Earth Day virtually during this public health crisis, let’s not forget that it’s a critical year for climate action.
The Coronavirus Recovery Will Be Our Last, Best Chance at Climate Mitigation
By Cooper Martin
As Earth Day approached many people, correctly, have been grappling with the challenge of discussing climate change in the face of so much hardship.
It’s a difficult question in difficult times, but as I think about Earth Day and the effect of Covid on climate policy, I believe that our response to this crisis represents the planet’s last, best, chance to mitigate the effects of climate change and prevent greater hardships that would endure for generations.
We’ve been down a similar road before. After the Great Recession, emissions in the US fell 11% between 2007 and 2013 but since then they have stabilized at best as the policymakers focused on rebuilding the economy largely as it was before.
Throughout the day yesterday, we saw examples of mayors and other city officials who managed to lead a different kind of discussion. In Madison, WI, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s office posted a statement that “We have an opportunity to [recover] in a way that centers equity and our environment.” In Lansing, MI, Mayor Schor used Earth Day as an opportunity to announce the promotion of the city’s first sustainability manager.
Within the last 6 weeks, Congress and the Fed have approved between $3-4.5 trillion in spending. By comparison, the boldest Green New Deal proposals to achieve a low-emission energy grid and zero-emissions transportation system carry estimated costs between $6-10 trillion over the next 10 years.
Arguments against these dramatic efforts has always been that it would be too economically disruptive, but all of the supposed disruptions are already here. Right now, global supply chains are straining, the entire energy sector is upended with $0 oil futures and mass layoffs, hundreds of thousands of people may be retrained in contact tracing or other jobs.
This is not an apples to apples comparison, but trillions are being spent. Our economy is being transformed. This effort must position us for rapid decarbonization by 2030, and cities around the country have the climate action plans and shovel-ready projects ready to do it.
Our current reality offers us a glimpse of what a cleaner, healthier future could look like
By Nick Kasza
While there are very few positives from the Coronavirus pandemic, the improvement in air quality across the globe has been striking and welcomed. In the early days of the pandemic we read about improved air quality and reduced pollution in China as tens of millions were locked down, and industrial production and manufacturing grinded to a halt. As the pandemic spread, drastic improvements were seen in Italy while people in India excitedly shared photos of the Himalayas which are normally obscured by a dense haze of pollution. We’ve even seen air quality improvements throughout the United States, the most car-centric country in the world, as Americans drive less and stay at home to help flatten the curve. These drastic improvements in air quality have occurred over a relatively short period of time due to a significant reduction in passenger vehicle travel, less industrial production, and decreases in overall energy consumption.
I think we can all agree that cleaner air is a positive, no matter where you live. However, there is a concern that reduced air pollution will be a short-term benefit that will evaporate as societies eventually return to business as usual. The thing is, do we really want to return to business as usual? How about we aim higher, we aim to return to better than usual. We can do that if we invest in the right technology and aim for the widespread deployment of renewable energy and electric vehicles, shifting away from fossil fuels that lead to poor air quality and high levels of pollution.
At a time when we will need to put people back to work, investing in the renewable energy sector is an opportunity to grow high paying, local jobs, that provide positive environmental and economic benefits. For our health and our planet’s health, let’s aim for a better than usual tomorrow powered by renewable energy and transported by electric vehicles.
About the Authors
Anna Marandi is a senior associate on the Sustainability Team at the National League of Cities (NLC).
Carolyn Berndt is the legislative director for sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.
Cooper Martin is the director of sustainability at the National League of Cities.
Nick Kasza is a Senior Associate with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. He is part of a team that manages the SolSmart program and helps deliver technical assistance to cities pursuing SolSmart designation.