Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

The first big test of President Biden’s climate policy will be to invest in a green and just recovery from the pandemic

The most significant test of any government’s commitment to climate action right now is the measures it takes to rebuild its economy after the pandemic. Analysis for C40’s Mayors’ COVID Recovery Taskforce shows this clearly – a big, fast global programme of green stimulus will create 50 million good new jobs in C40 cities alone, while also being the best route to protect health and enable us to get on track to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and make it to zero by 2050. So while we should rightly celebrate the moment when President Biden takes the USA back into the Paris Agreement, what is really going to matter in his first year in office is whether or not he is able to push through a green and just COVID recovery stimulus.

Analysis for the Guardian this week showed that currently the USA, along with most countries, is going in the wrong direction, arguing that “The prospect of a global green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is hanging in the balance, as countries pour money into the fossil fuel economy to stave off a devastating recession”. But the research also showed that if President Biden is able to deliver what he has promised in his widely praised climate policies it would catapult the USA to the top of the green recovery league, and could stimulate similar moves across the world. The possibility that there will soon be a widely available vaccine only makes a focus on the nature of COVID-recovery stimulus programmes more important.

Focusing climate policy on COVID-recovery might seem wrong-headed when in the last few weeks we have not only seen the ousting of a science-denying President in the USA, but  major new commitments to achieve long-term carbon neutrality from China, Japan and South Korea, in the last few weeks. But it is a position based on two unavoidable realities: first, that we have almost run out of time to halt run-away climate breakdown; and, second, that the impact of the pandemic on economic activity, and the scale of stimulus funding being mobilised to overcome the pandemic-induced recession, is so big that all the old political economy ‘rules’ have been temporarily thrown up in the air. If we can reassemble them along the lines of the Global Green New Deal that is at the centre of C40’s approach to climate action, then it is still possible that we could prevent run-away climate breakdown. If, on the other hand, recovery plans are designed to return to business as usual then we’re done for.

That is the conclusion of research carried out for the C40 group of big-city mayors, for whom I am proud to serve as executive director.

The bad news is that only 3-5% of existing stimulus funding is in any way ‘green’ and C40’s analysis shows that by using public subsidy to attempt to return to business as usual, governments are actually making it impossible to achieve the impressive new climate targets to which many of them are increasingly committed. 

As the graphs below illustrates, however, sliding into runaway climate breakdown is not a foregone conclusion. While it is immediately clear that policies designed to return to ‘business as usual’ will fail to halve global emissions by 2030 (denoted by the dotted horizontal line), two of the three alternative pathways of green recovery we modelled for C40’s mayoral COVID recovery taskforce enable that science-based target to be met.* 

It’s worth noting here that C40’s analysis shows that it is speed of investment that matters as much as size. If there was a really fast, big and concerted effort to reboot the global economy on the basis of achieving climate goals (front-loading capital investment to the next 3 to 5 years), then we could actually get well below halving global GHG emissions by 2030. Spending the same amount in ten years just about gets us under the bar. Stretch it to 15 years and, like a ‘business as usual’ recovery, emissions will rise well beyond any notion of ‘safe’ limits.

If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency – and we need to be – then the recovery stimulus has got to be big, green and fast.

C40’s research is very revealing on this – not only is a green recovery the only path to avoiding climate breakdown, but we’ll create a third more jobs if stimulus funding is targeted at green, rather than polluting sectors. In all, we calculate that it is possible to create 50 million good, new green jobs in C40 cities alone in the next decade if we get the recovery right. That number rises to 80 million with accelerated investment in the next five years, creating opportunities for those who have lost jobs during lockdowns and beyond.

The bulk of that job creation potential is in the building sector, retrofitting existing homes and offices so that they are vastly more energy efficient, and ensuring that only zero carbon buildings are licensed to be constructed in all the world’s major cities by 2030. As the graph below shows there is also significant job creation potential in the transport sector, electrifying motorised mobility and extending cycle lanes and pedestrian facilities. C40 mayors around the world from Bogota to Seattle, Milan to Melbourne, have used the pandemic to convert newly empty streets into cycle lanes, walkways and other public space. And they are doing it quickly – Sydney reports rolling out new cycle lanes in 10 weeks that previously would have taken 5 years to implement. 

We also see a particularly strong nexus between job creation and emission reduction from nature based solutions in South and West Asia and Africa.  What Mayor Aki-Sawyer is doing in making Freetown, Sierra Leone, a “tree town” is a great example, with a huge tree-planting programme that in addition to sucking carbon out of the air, will improve resilience to flooding, provide shade for increasing urban temperatures, and boost jobs in biodiversity services.

Focusing on climate change when most of the world outside of China and New Zealand remains in a debilitating struggle with COVID-19 might seem tone-deaf. Certainly, most of the mayors whom I serve are currently focused first and foremost on the health crisis in their cities. But it has been notable that from the outset of the pandemic C40 mayors have not only wanted to collaborate on how to protect their citizens’ health, but also on how to ensure that the recovery from COVID is about building back better.

The research quoted above is a product of a mayoral taskforce that has seen eleven mayors work together since May to plot out what a green and just recovery from COVID could look like, taking evidence from economists, trade union leaders, business executives and community organisers along the way. In addition to collaborating on their own responses to the pandemic, the mayors on the taskforce have also called on national governments to ensure all stimulus spending is green and to end all public subsidy for fossil fuels.

It is notable that while multi-lateralism has been buckling under the weight of the pandemic and the climate crisis, with international institutions under attack and presidents and prime-ministers withdrawing behind geographical boundaries, internationalism has never been more alive in the mindset of city leaders. 

When the pandemic started, mayors in C40 immediately wanted to talk to each other. In a series of on-line meetings they shared experience on how to ramp up health facilities, manage track and trace, provide safe mass transit, and even to establish temporary global standards for how to manage waste in the context of COVID-19. As China got the virus under control, so Chinese mayors started to share spare personal protective equipment (PPE) with other cities. Later, mayors started working together to prepare the common approach achieving a green and just recovery from the pandemic discussed above.

This collaborative, internationalist approach to solving global problems is not a one off. City leaders have been strongly aligned in tackling climate change for a decade and a half and, in addition to COVID, collaboration is now also emerging in other fields from migration to air quality. In all cases, the starting point is that there is much to be gained from sharing best-practice (copying successful ideas and taking them back home, or learning what pitfalls to avoid), and mutual benefits in uniting to shift global markets or policy.

That’s not to pretend that mayors don’t compete with each other. But unlike presidents and prime ministers, when they disagree they don’t confront each other with armies or tariffs, instead it’s a race to the top – cutting air pollution, improving clean mobility, raising housing standards in order to attract investment, tourists and the most dynamic people to become residents. 

Recovery from the pandemic is still many months, if not years, away in most of the world outside of east Asia and Oceania. But the decisions being taken now will determine not only how quickly we can put COVID-19 behind us, but also whether we can avoid slipping from a pandemic into a full-blown climate crisis. In setting out a clear pathway to a green and just recovery, C40 mayors are offering both evidence that internationalism is alive and well, and a vision for how we can achieve the future we want, and avoid the one we are descending towards.

*Chinese C40 cities were not included in C40’s analysis due to lack of comparable data, but as the first major country to control the COVID epidemic, China is likely to lead the world in defining what a COVID recovery looks like. 

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