Covid-19 impacts on cities’ sustainability

How sustainability efforts by European cities have been infringed by the Covid-19 pandemic is outlined in this blog article by Maryna Henrysson, Rebecka Engström, Francesco Fuso Nerini of the Unit of Energy Systems, KTH – Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.

Cities are at the vanguard of the unfolding multiple crises brought out by the COVID-19 pandemic. An unprecedented health crisis with broadly negative impacts among societal and economic outcomes, the Covid-19 pandemic also provides unique insights for the future sustainability and decarbonisation efforts in cities.

First, the current crisis exposes urban inequalities and safety risks – and broadly cities’ ill-preparedness to crises. Disruptions in emergency and healthcare response-services, affordable food supplies, water and sanitation services under the containment measures disproportionally affected disadvantaged urban populations. The long-term health and socio-economic consequences are distinctly severe in poor and densely populated urban areas.  Cities are risking significant rises in unemployment and hunger. The crisis has resulted in a steep rise in violence against vulnerable groups, including children and women.

Second, the current crisis highlights how inherently unhealthy and unsustainable many urban environments in Europe and around the world are. Lack of resilience of urban infrastructures and vital supply chains is stark. The crisis put a strain on urban transit and mobility systems that are suffering financial losses. Urban waste management systems were not prepared for a change in behaviour. As a consequence significant proportion of plastic waste is ending in landfills across Europe.

Third, while long-term exposure to high-levels of pollution has been linked to high mortality rates including from Covid-19, decreased mobility and economic activity significantly reduced NOx and PM2.5 emissions, as well as greenhouse gases. This provides a unique insight into how low-polluting cities could look like. However, these short-term environmental gains are likely to be overshadowed by economic recovery priorities in the aftermath of the crisis. In fact, the Covid-19 crisis has already diverted attention and delayed measures to address SDG13 on Climate Action and the Paris Agreement.

The learning experiences from the Covid-19 crises should act as catalysts to upscale the rise of smart and carbon-neutral cities. Recovery from the pandemic should go hand in hand with proposed decarbonisation efforts in cities, such as enhancing circularity in material flows and smart and efficient energy systems. For instance, local governments are forced to revise mobility and accessibility services, advance integrated urban transport and city planning. Cities such as Bogota and Milan have converted streets into emergency cycling and walking spaces paving the way for compact, carbon-neutral and accessible mobility infrastructure. The crisis speeds up targeted smart cities innovations. New digital tools for awareness-raising and communication, health care services, education, teleworking and citizen participation are being developed. Those can provide insights on the development of tools to support resource and energy efficiency, and novel sharing practices. The Covid-19 crisis might also promote recognition of the importance of public spaces, access to urban nature and safety in public space as important elements of urban resilience.

As a matter of facts, many of the actions to increase urban resilience and preparedness for crises such as the one we are now experiencing are similar to those for climate action in cities. In a recent DEEDS Policy Brief the need to implement and improve circular and sharing economy models is highlighted. It also emphasises the importance of participation and inclusive planning to realise zero-carbon cities that reduces, not exacerbates, today’s socio-economic inequalities.

The Covid19 crisis is unique. Still, health, environment and economy risks are to be expected in the cities of tomorrow – especially as a result of a climate crisis which seems unlikely to be limited to a global temperature rise well below 2 °C. Cities must, therefore, become resilient and undergo a sustainable transformation at once. We need to make cities more low-pollution, inclusive, resilient, safe circular, and smarter. The Covid-19 crisis provides a unique opportunity to redirect cities attention towards resilient and zero-carbon strategies.