“We know that the road less travelled is extremely challenging, but it’s the only way that will take us to the better place,” opined Filipe Araújo, Vice Mayor of Porto.
“After the big shock of the pandemic, we are all working very hard in our municipalities and regions to take us beyond superficial responses. We don’t want to re-enact the 2008 financial crisis in which things went quickly back to normal,” he added.
Figuring out how to negotiate the necessary recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, while keeping a strong focus on the green transition, and making space for people, was at the centre of a three-day online debate last week, as part of Eurocities Environment Forum, which Araújo chairs.
Time for a revolution?
Over the past 12 months, many city administrations have been able to make major policy advances in response to the crisis – new ways of managing mobility, health care, social services, green spaces, and more. In fact, according to Professor Derk Loorbach, Professor of Socio-economic Transitions at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, there is a momentum in cities right now that we must seize upon.
He argues that the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated many transitions that were already happening in response to societal upheavals that are much more evident at the local level – “think about pollution, air quality, social economic difference, health inequalities,” he states.
And it’s necessary, he says, because “we are still on a pathway of unsustainability”.
It’s an idea that other speakers shared, such as Katherine Richardson, Professor and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre, University of Copenhagen, who introduced the concept of planetary boundaries – ten earth processes that contribute to the possibility of the planet to sustain life. However, according to Richardson, the most important of these are ‘climate’ and ‘biodiversity’ – on which we are currently living beyond our means.
How to localise this?
Although the idea of global transitions and planetary boundaries might seem a bit far removed from the city level, there is plenty that cities can do. In the words of Anna Lisa Boni, Secretary General of Eurocities, it’s time to realise “cities’ power and potential to enact positive change”.
In areas as diverse as waste management, good building practices and public procurement, the actions taken by cities have consequences far outside their territories, which is why Richardson suggests: “One of the things I think cities need to do is a little more focus on systems thinking.” For Richardson, while cities already do many things right, they could go a step further: rather than choosing visually pleasing vegetation as a flood prevention measure, think about biodiversity for example.
But adapting our economics and societies is not always so straightforward. As Araújo points out, political decisions are too often hamstrung by term limits and the prospect of re-election, which is why strategies need to be developed that cannot be put into question. International frameworks like the European Green Deal or the UN Sustainable Development Goals help cities set a common ambition that can last beyond single term limits.
A great example of a successful strategic vision comes from Lahti, the current EU Green Capital. In the 1970s, after a period of rapid post-war industrialisation and growth, the city discovered that the lake surrounding the city was the most polluted in Finland. Since then, the city started taking measures to improve its environmental impact.
This ambition was secured in 2009 when the city council agreed to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2025, “and now three terms after we have stopped using coal, 99% of our waste is reused, and all of our district heating is emission free”, said Milla Bruneau, Executive Director of Lahti Green Capital.
What lessons from the crisis?
“The lesson from Covid is that we should take it as a warning sign of how vulnerable our systems are, but also should be positive in the sense we can see how these triggers can help inspire faster moving and more radical change than we ever thought possible,” said Loorbach.
Nonetheless, several speakers agreed that it proves there is a need to invest in environmental challenges.
“First of all, relating to the circular economy,” explains Araújo. “In the first stages of the pandemic there was a major demand for short food supplies: producer to consumer, because there is a higher sense of safety as well as a constant supply of fresh and healthy vegetables. This is something we were already working on, but this is something the pandemic helped too.”
In a city like Lahti, which is 50 minutes away from Helsinki by train and a commuter hub for people working in the Finnish capital, the city has found more demand for services recently as everyone has been staying at home. “I think digitalisation is the silver lining of the pandemic and the opportunities it has provided us,” says Bruneau. “When we were forced, we found new ways to do work, because societies can’t stop even if there is a crisis.”
The Eurocities Environment Forum 2021 was jointly hosted by the cities of Porto and Guimaraes. Recordings of the main sessions will be made available soon.