Climate change

So you’ve declared a climate emergency: what next – now that Covid has struck?

  • Published: May 13, 2020
  • Author: Alan Sitkin
  • Category: Climate change

Alan Sitkin, now of Regent’s University, was previously Cabinet Member for Economic Regeneration and Business at the London Borough of Enfield.

In a world unrecognisable from two months ago – back when NPI’s new report on climate change for APSE was completed – the question is whether the coronavirus has strengthened or weakened the messages contained within this report.

At a high level, climate change and Covid-19 both reflect our civilisation’s ever more dysfunctional interaction with the natural world. Ideally, this linkage would be translated in the way that government bodies – starting with UK local authorities – react to the twin crises, with priority being given to the planning and implementation of actions that address both simultaneously. Yet, there is a very real fear that the opposite may occur, with Covid-19’s economic cost casting a long shadow over the climate emergency.

So you’ve declared a climate emergency: what next? doesn’t look at the economics of addressing climate change. But its core argument – namely, that councils should root their case for action in science – is one that resonates today in a way that was unthinkable when the report was first written. So too does its key conclusion, that the nature of the problem favours early action. The message from the science, that the climate change emergency can be contained as long as immediate action is taken, now sounds encouragingly optimistic. What remains one of the two greatest threats facing humankind – the other being nuclear Armageddon – suddenly looks like an adversary that we can imagine defeating.

Having said that, Covid-19 has already changed some aspects of how we thought the climate emergency could be addressed. The main crossover between ecology and Covid-19 is urban densification. Until recently, a widely held view promulgated by among others Sadiq Khan in London as well as in California and other growth zones worldwide, was that the silver bullet for resolving the housing crisis was to build blocks of flats next to peripheral transport hubs, especially railway and tube stations. The idea was that this would make it possible to house residents without furthering the kind of extensive suburbanisation that has led to such a sharp rise in commuting – hence in CO2 emissions – over the past 60 years.

The pandemic has dealt this idea a grievous blow. Scientists speak of the likelihood that coronavirus will be recurrent – and/or that humankind will be afflicted by other pathologies released due to our ongoing encroachment on previously untouched natural reserves. That being so, it is now inconceivable that any government body should countenance urban planning that perpetuates a situation where millions of citizens – who despite the essential nature of their work are often the least financially secure – isolate in small, tightly packed apartments while the lucky few maintain access to therapeutic ground-level green space, not least in their own back gardens. Add to this a tall building’s high CO2 footprint and the imperative to rewrite UK councils’ current local plans becomes evident.

There are at several ways this can be done. Firstly, given the widely predicted rise in tele-working (and concomitant fall in commuting and many other forms of long-distance travel), it is no longer the case that extensive urban growth translates into greater consumption of transport and therefore fuel. In turn, there is no longer a cogent argument against councils planning for further suburbanisation – for instance, on the Green Belt’s many brownfield sites – with the crucial added benefit that the de-densification engineered in this way ensures the social distancing that is likely to be another imperative in tomorrow’s world.

Secondly, something that creative councils like London Borough of Hackney (but also other cities worldwide, including Oslo and Milan) are already doing is to re-design existing urban centres in a way that simultaneously reduces Covid-19 transmission and CO2 emissions. On the face of things, it is very simple – a huge extension in pavements (and pedestrian zones) enabled by a permanent reduction in the spaces (roads, parking) accessible to automobiles. The logic here is that car rationing is the only way to achieve the climate targets set in COP-25; with the concomitant effect that citizens will be safer if they no longer have to crowd into small retail zones.

There are other joint Covid-CO2 measures that remain feasible for cash-strapped local authorities. The question is whether they have the courage to face down the interests likely to oppose this new world: developers unwilling to relinquish the super-profits they earn on high rises as opposed to mid- and low-rises; motorist afficionados; without forgetting shop parade retailers fearful that pedestrian and/or cyclist customers will purchase lesser volumes than car drivers. The reality for these interests has to be that the new normal will not – and should not – resemble the old one.

At the top of NPI’s list of LA action priorities for the 2020s – and drawn directly from the UK Committee on Climate Change – are improvements in buildings’ energy efficiency. The goal here is to improve residents’ comfort levels; lower their bills; and help them switch to low-carbon heating sources. The single biggest reason why buildings must be at the top of this list is that local authorities are the only bodies who can take the lead here.

Coronavirus has done two things to what was already a high priority. The first is to extend the list of reasons for building improvements so that they include public health. The second is to increase public support for better buildings as long as this leads to better public health. There is no reason to think that the coronavirus has made it any easier to take action on climate change. But it has created opportunities.

As former Obama advisor Rahm Emanuel put it, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. If ever there was a time for UK local government to demonstrate its ability to multi-task, now is the moment.

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