Coronavirus has changed how our cities operate. People aren’t driving everywhere, flying frequently or using tons of electricity. As a result, global carbon emissions could fall as much as 2.5 billion tonnes in 2020. And city leaders are taking note. Amid the destruction of lives and the global economy, the pandemic is offering cities the unprecedented opportunity to restructure society sustainably and equitably on the other side.
Cities are some of the most vulnerable areas to climate change, but they are also a transformative force: Innovation and technological progress start in urban areas. Last month, 40 mayors and city leaders from 25 countries announced the launch of a task force, run by the C40 group of cities, to aid in a coordinated, green response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our immediate priority is to protect the health of our residents and overcome the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Mayor of Milan and C40 Vice-Chair, Giuseppe Sala, said in the announcement. “However, we must also look towards how we will keep our people safe in the future. How we structure our recovery efforts will define our cities for decades to come.”
So far, cities have begun “pedestrianizing” the streets, to make life in a post-pandemic world — with social distancing a new norm — easier and more carbon friendly.
Under the nationwide lockdown in Italy, major traffic congestion fell by 30–75%. In response, Milan, one of the most polluted cities in Europe and one hardest hit by coronavirus, announced an ambitious plan to expand bike and walking lanes in the city — beginning over the summer with 35 kilometers (22 miles) of roads.
Mexico City, Madrid, Berlin and many others have also expanded access to roads for pedestrians during the shutdown.
The transportation sector makes up nearly 30% of our global emissions. Clearing the way for more walking, biking and public transit could cut these emissions drastically. If just 20% of city dwellers biked instead of drove, urban CO2 emissions could fall 11%.
But we’re going to need more than bike lanes to slow climate change. Cities are also exploring how to provide safe, accessible and efficient public transportation following the coronavirus.
Another opportunity for greener cities is through, well, more green spaces. Urban green areas also help fight climate change, but they have a lot of positive byproducts, too. A recent study concluded that urban nature is one of the best ways metro areas can support residents in times of isolation. While still allowing for social distancing, these spaces provide many health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, stress relief and a stronger immune system.
Right now, green spaces are less available in low-income communities, amplifying the need for equitable access and climate justice in cities.
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, cities have some big decisions to make. China is coming out on the other side of the outbreak, and while pollution levels dropped as much as 30% across the country in late January, levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution are rising as business returns to normal.
To see how your city can invest in environmental initiatives, check out Earth Day Network’s Green Cities campaign. And this year, hold your leaders accountable for a green coronavirus recovery — learn more at our Vote Earth campaign.
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