Planet Days
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Planet Days

COVID-19 could reinvent global cities into climate-friendly machines

COVID-19 threatens to kill our idea of cities — but maybe that’s a good thing.

For years, our beloved cities have recklessly spewed emissions into the atmosphere, helping send the Planet into a climate crisis. According to the United Nations, cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and emit more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, with COVID-19 shutdowns upending economies and forcing closures, emissions have dropped 7% from 2019. However, experts predict a rebound to pre-pandemic levels if we don’t take action.

The good news is cities can be a solution to the crisis they’ve created. Sure, much of a city’s makeup is inherently bad for the Planet — smog, traffic, concrete — but some of it is good, too — efficient living, smaller land area.

Cities also have a history of innovation following disasters. When cholera outbreaks shook 19th century London, for example, cities updated infrastructure to establish sewage systems. And we see this adaptability playing out right now, as metro areas adjust to COVID-19 restrictions.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has added more than 30 miles of new bike lanes within the city and more than 60 miles in the inner suburbs. Since last March, cities from Mexico City to Milan to Bogota have made similar, carbon-friendly road changes, with one database listing almost 1,400 actions taken across the world.

It’s unclear how many of these changes will stick, but clearing space for more walking and biking is clearly in cities’ — and the Planet’s — best interests. Business-as-usual projections show that cities’ temperatures could rise 4.4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

What cities do right now could change that, though. If just 15% of city dwellers biked instead of drove, for example, total urban CO2 emissions could fall 12%.

“The situation is urgent, but I am confident because I know I am not alone in this battle,” Hidalgo wrote for TIME in 2019. “There are more and more of us fighting for a different vision of the world — a world that takes care of our most precious resources: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places we share.”

Luckily, cities aren’t wasting time. Hidalgo and others recently launched the 1,000 Cities Adapt Now program, which focuses on advancing an inclusive and resilient COVID-19 recovery while creating a pathway for cities to combat climate threats.

Of course, it’ll take more than bike lanes to slow climate change. That’s why cities must also improve access to safe, efficient public transportation, as laid out by the climate task force C40 cities.

Adding urban green areas is another way to help the Planet. And for this, cities shouldn’t wait until after the pandemic: One study published last year found that urban nature is one of the best ways metro areas can support residents in times of isolation.

Right now, green spaces are less available in low-income communities, which have been hardest hit by COVID-19 and climate impacts like extreme heat. As we emerge from the pandemic, leaders must also keep equity at the front of their minds.

Experts now believe big cities will make a comeback as we get a hold of COVID-19. But given the state of the Planet, we can’t go back to business as usual. While cities are poised to face the brunt of climate change, they’re also best suited to address the impacts already here.

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