COVID & Climate: What’s Next for Cities?
Equitable city actions to address public health, economic recovery, and climate resiliency
The Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy and Innovation Network for Communities have published a series of three reports designed to provide community leaders (inside and outside of local government) with guidance about navigating their climate-action priorities through the gauntlet of challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.
Our research addresses key questions about the opportunities and risks for local climate action and assesses purposeful city actions that can benefit socially vulnerable populations who have experienced disproportionate harm from COVID-19 and climate change.
Major findings include opportunities for cities to build their post-pandemic recovery and emerge as more equitable, healthy, prosperous, and climate-resilient communities.
In the first report, four lessons for local leaders are revealed through analysis of reports, articles, and blogs on the COVID-19 linkage to climate change.
Four lessons for local climate leadership:
- Focus beyond the COVID-19 crisis and maintain and boost climate-action momentum because the risks and costs will only grow if action is delayed.
- Act to prepare your communities for climate change and GHG reduction; walking away from or delaying crucial climate actions risks disastrous and inequitable local consequences.
- Enhance local climate action by building on your residents’ and businesses’ behavior changes during the pandemic response that reduce emissions and enhance resiliency.
- Maximize the local economic and community benefits of an economic recovery that simultaneously drives business and job expansion, improves personal and public health, reduces GHG emissions, strengthens climate resilience, and improves social equity.
Report 2 | Climate of Crisis: How Cities Can Use Climate Action to Close the Equity Gap, Drive Economic Recovery, and Improve Public Health
The second report points to ways that cities can meet the challenges of accelerating climate action. A major focus of our analysis is the preexisting inequity in and access to essential services—including housing, affordable clean energy, transportation and mobility, and green space—and the connection to public health, climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. The BU Initiative on Cities also contributed to this report.
What cities can do to meet the challenges:
- Treat climate change with the same urgency and resolve as a pandemic; delay today will substantially raise future costs.
- Communicate the imperative to use sound science in public health and climate action.
- Prioritize actions that generate simultaneous gains across health, equity, the economy, and climate.
- Adjust decision-making (including budgeting) to break down barriers across departments.
- Implement transparent and inclusive decision making, including collaborative governance structures that bridge the divide between community and government.
- Recognize that improved equity needs to be a key organizing principle in all decision-making.
Close the digital divide:
- Improve access to information on clean energy, energy efficiency, transportation services, home energy use, waste reduction, health, and climate resiliency with:
- Granular knowledge of internet access, cost, and utilization for socially vulnerable populations.
- Pressure on federal regulators to eliminate digital redlining, and to cede more power to local governments.
- Better, cheaper broadband access; more mobile hotspots and free public Wi-Fi.
- Expanded partnerships to provide free or reduced cost devices, access, technical support, and digital literacy training.
- Design climate action that does not rely exclusively on use of the Internet.
Ensure access to healthy, affordable food for all:
- Eliminate food deserts and food swamps via zoning, real estate tax reductions, density bonuses, reduced parking requirements, and creation of mobile markets.
- Limit or prohibit the sale and marketing of unhealthy food to children.
- Expand public outreach and education on healthy eating.
- License and provide public financial assistance for food retailers.
- Expand urban food production.
- Increase transportation access to supermarkets and farmer’s markets.
Capture the diverse benefits of city life:
- Assess the role of demographic factors (density, crowding) in COVID-19 infection and mortality.
- Use the impact of and response to the pandemic as an opportunity to communicate the economic, social, and environmental benefits of cities.
- Zone and invest in compact urban development that encourages cycling and walking; enhances public transport; mixes land use; maintains accessibility to local services and jobs; and increases affordable housing.
Drive the clean energy transition:
- Demonstrate that commitment to clean energy is not derailed by short term economic disruption.
- Assess and communicate the health, workforce, and equity benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
- Increase investment in carbon-neutral and climate-resilient mobility (public transit, clean EVs, biking and walking).
- Increase investment in building energy efficiency to generate jobs and reduce utility bills; couple with more affordable housing.
- Invest in in-city solar PV; focus on low-income communities and building local workforce.
- Lobby states and utilities to expand clean energy and energy efficiency programs.
- Oppose the Federal bailout of oil and gas companies, and rollback of efficiency and pollution standards; support clean energy in recovery proposals.
- Lobby for stable, supportive regulatory regimes for wind and solar.
Rejuvenate public transit and expand biking, walking, and slow/shared streets:
- Pair city action with public behavior campaigns that raise awareness of the health, climate, economic, and equity benefits of public and active transport.
- Assess and close equity gaps in quality, cost, and access to public transit, biking, and walking.
- Assess and communicate the experience of recent slow/shared streets pilots; expand scale and scope and make permanent.
- Restore public trust in the safety of public transportation: increase cleaning, require face masks, reduce maximum passenger capacity, and accommodate shifting schedules, including essential workers.
- Keep public transportation workers safe and equipped with proper PPE.
- Assess and implement new revenue sources for transit (parking charges, congestion fees, real estate fees, tolls, business license taxes, registration fees, gasoline taxes).
- Lobby for increased public transit funding at state and regional levels.
- Combine GHG reduction and climate resiliency in all transportation planning.
- Reduce transit cost to low-income residents.
- Address the last mile problem via increased shuttles, biking, and micro-mobility.
Reap more benefits of green space:
- Assess quality, quantity, and equity of access to all current green space.
- Assess and communicate the health, economic, social, and climate resilience benefits of green space.
- Assess new areas for conversion to green space (remediated industrial sites, etc.).
- Avoid ecological gentrification with a deliberate commitment to equity; direct funds towards historically underinvested neighborhoods.
Maintain momentum on zero waste:
- Communicate the urgent need to reduce plastic pollution, and identify alternatives to plastic, including PPE in healthcare.
- Drive retailers and residents back to the use of reusable bags and materials in a manner consistent with health science.
- Communicate the public health risks and lifecycle assessment of the environmental impacts of disposal, recycling, composting, and waste to energy facilities.
- Plan and implement a zero-waste initiative.
Prepare for more telework:
- Assess the extent to which a shift to teleworking can occur by sector, occupation, and number of jobs, including local government.
- Reassess GHG reduction strategies based on shifts in energy end-use and fuel shifting.
- Assess the equity impacts of more telework and adopt measures to close equity gaps.
Report 3 | A Survey of North American City Climate Leaders: The Prospects for Climate Action in the COVID-19 Era
In the third and final report, we present the results of a survey of 25 U.S. and Canadian city climate leaders, conducted in July and August 2020, to assess the current priority of city climate action in the context of the pandemic. Six key findings emerged on city climate action, including the outlook for the next 18 months. The BU Initiative on Cities also contributed to this report.