One year of COVID-19: Ensuring green and just recovery
by ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) Europe | 30 March 2021
In March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic. One year has passed since that monumental declaration, and our cities and communities have become markedly different as a result.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life across the world. This has been starkly visible in cities. The pandemic has prompted an economic crisis and exacerbated social inequalities within and amongst communities, all while the climate crisis and overuse of natural resources continues. These challenges must be addressed in tandem, while focusing on recovery that supports those most vulnerable and respects planetary resource boundaries.
Green recovery will not be easy. Experiences collated from presentations at the European Urban Resilience Forum 2020, and gathered through interviews that ICLEI carried out to inform amendments to the Green City Action Plan methodology with respect to resilience, point to a few primary ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged cities. COVID has posed a challenge to municipal infrastructure sectors, impacting the operation of the transport, health and education sectors in particular. Managing this has been that much more difficult, as many cities have found themselves without established guidance documents and processes to guide crisis response in a coordinated manner.
Meanwhile, inequalities within and amongst urban communities have increased, making it that much more necessary and challenging to ensure that cities centre the needs of the urban poor and vulnerable. COVID-19 has exacerbated or put additional pressure on existing problems like energy poverty and housing insecurity – especially when combined with climate hazards like earthquakes faced in ICLEI Members Zagreb (Croatia) and İzmir (Turkey). Furthermore, while urban challenges have increased, public revenues (local fiscal income) have, in fact, plummeted.
This may paint a bleak situation, and it would be unwise to deny the immense challenge ahead for local governments. However, COVID-19 recovery can still be leveraged as an opportunity to take transformative actions that create more just, resilient and sustainable cities. If local leaders are bold, green recovery can not only help restore quality of life for the few who were best-off pre-pandemic, but can rather forge a new reality, which is just for all and sustainable for future generations.
The road to green recovery should be built upon a few key pillars. First, cities must bolster their disaster readiness. This has two components: putting in place tested crisis management guidance and processes; and ensuring that social and economic systems are flexible and resilient. The latter means that systems like schooling, long-term care facilities, and large employers are designed to be flexible enough to continue operating even in the face of previously unforeseen disasters. Second, good practice standards and regulations at the European level on topics like resilience, green financing and urban greening can help ensure that resilient solutions are spread and scaled-up. Finally, resilience planning approaches must be integrated across all policy levels and sectors.
Each of these priorities and more can be included in Local Green Deals. With the European Green Deal, the European Union put in place a growth framework for Europe to develop while meeting ambitious climate and resilience goals. This framework can and must be articulated in local contexts, as laid out in the Mannheim Message. Doing so can help set the stage for the integration of resilience approaches across a municipality.
Cities need not take on green recovery alone. In addition to providing a framework in the form of the European Green Deal, the European Union and its Member States have also put in place financing mechanisms, like the EU Recovery Funds and the temporary ‘NextGernerationEU’ recovery instrument, which can support transformative recovery and repair. There are opportunities for cities to tap into these funds – such as through innovation projects – in order to recover from the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, while also securing green transition and resilience. This is one path to bolster fiscal incomes and fiscal transfers at the local level, to avoid crisis and ensure stable and just recovery.
Wolfgang Teubner, ICLEI Regional Director for Europe, explains: “Local governments need easy and immediate access to EU Recovery Funds, and demand recognition of – and support for – efforts to localise the European Green Deal.” He goes on to express, “in order to secure a sustainable future for all, Recovery Funds must be aligned with the EU Green Deal, and sustainability criteria must be applied to recovery spending at all governance levels. Furthermore, funds should be made accessible for local governments in a concentrated and integrated way, rather than spreading them thinly across different programmes with many strings attached.”
As we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic, while beginning the process of rebuilding and recovering, horizontal cooperation between local governments, as well as multi-level (vertical) collaboration will be essential. Together, we can build more sustainable, just and resilient cities for all.
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