Why are cities vital to support a green recovery from COVID-19? Urban areas are critical for both the global and local environment. They constitute the most significant source of GHG emissions, pollution and demand for non-renewable resources. Cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy, which accounts for 60 per cent of global GHG emissions. When the lifecycle consequences of urban consumption of non-energy goods and services are included, the C40 Cities organization calculated that emissions were 60 per cent higher in the 79 cities studied. At a minimum. UN-Habitat now estimates that 70 per cent of all carbon emissions are city-based. In addition, liquid and solid wastes from cities, as well as urban air pollution, have environmental and health consequences that affect both urban and peri-urban residents.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, communities and governments have recognized benefits of decreased air pollution, revitalization of natural assets, increased solidarity among communities, transboundary collaboration among institutions, decentralization and localization of food and energy production, public ownership of services. This provides a tremendous opportunity to pursue more sustainable urban development pathways:
- Low-carbon urban growth: The low emission development pathway curbs climate change, creates new economic opportunities and improves the health of human and natural systems. Specifically, local and regional governments should reduce environmentally harmful pollutants and GHG emissions from heating, cooling, lighting and food systems, and reduce noise. They would lower GHG emissions in all activities, especially in transport, waste and buildings. They should aim for carbon neutral infrastructure and operations by mid-century, and usher in a renewable energy era, by committing to 100 per cent renewable energy, divesting from fossil fuels and using nature-based solutions. Finally, they would need to promote sustainable passenger and freight mobility, prioritize clean fuel policies and electric vehicles from renewable energy, and give priority to people-centred mobility solutions.
- Nature-based solutions: The nature-based development pathway protects and enhances biodiversity and urban ecosystems, which underpin key aspects of local economies and the wellbeing and resilience of our communities. Specifically, secondary cities would prioritize healthy local environments, in which air, water, soil and other natural resources that sustain life and health are protected and nurtured. They should invest in projects, programs and policies that unlock the potential for nature to provide essential services and new economic opportunities by applying nature-based solutions, using blue and green infrastructure and promoting green zones.
- Circular development: The circular development pathway and new models of production and consumption build sustainable societies that use recyclable, sharable and replenishing resources to end the linear model of produce, consume, discard. Developing country cities would encourage equitable access to resources and create closed-loop urban and peri-urban systems. This could be done by (a) supporting new local economies that are productive and not extractive, where resources are exchanged and not wasted; (b) prioritizing sustainable waste management through initiatives such as the ESCAP Closing the Loop project and working with the business sector from early-market engagement to the delivery of solutions that support local sustainability goals and that meet the needs of all citizens, and (c) using procurement power to green economies.
- More inclusive local development: Equitable and people-centred development help build more just, liveable and inclusive urban communities and addresses poverty. Local and regional governments should do so by: (a) ensuring that the natural and built environment in and around cities improves liveability and safety, promotes human health and mitigates disease; (b) seeking secure and safe access to food, water, energy and sanitation for all, and clean air and soil; and (c) supporting human-centred, safe and socially cohesive communities, where diversity and distinct identities are woven into the social fabric.
Cities, and especially the rapidly growing secondary settlements in the developing world, are critical to the local and global environment, increasingly concentrate growth and assets, and are experiencing growing losses from shocks and stresses, all of which disproportionately impact the poor. The COVID-19 pandemic is similar to a slow-onset disaster which has undermined the ability of secondary cities to reach their sustainable development goals. However, this crisis is an opportunity for these urban areas to build forward by investing in preparedness, developing capacity, building more resilient infrastructure, and consolidating sustainable initiatives. This silver lining can produce economic and other dividends for the current and future residents of secondary cities.