President-elect Joe Biden’s economic recovery plan would make the United States the world’s biggest investor in a low-carbon economy. We don’t yet know whether the Democrats will win enough seats in the U.S. Senate for the plan to be implemented in full; the future of the $2 trillion stimulus plan hangs in the balance as we await the outcome of January’s runoff races for Georgia’s two Senate seats. But, regardless of what happens in the new year, it will not stop the momentum of the green recovery already taking place in cities, states and local communities — not just in the United States but across the globe.
The most significant test of any government’s commitment to climate action right now is where it is directing COVID stimulus funding, and so far, most national governments are failing it. Almost all current stimulus funding globally has been invested in the polluting industries of the past. Despite the recent, and very welcome, wave of national net-zero targets, countries are making it impossible to achieve the emissions cuts to which they are committed.
For some time, it has been actors at the sub-national level – cities, regions, businesses and universities, often acting in partnership – that have been stepping up to fill the vacuum in national and international climate leadership, and they show no sign of stopping now. Worldwide, 823 cities and 101 regions – representing 11 percent of the global population and a combined emissions footprint greater than that of the United States – already have net-zero targets. Some 1,541 global companies, accounting for more greenhouse gas emissions than the annual emissions of India, the world’s fourth largest emitter, have also pledged to go net zero. The United Nations’ Race to Zero coalition aims to mobilize non-state actors in the largest ever alliance committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The coalition of cities, regions, businesses, investors and universities already cover 25 percent of global CO2 emissions.
The Trump presidency systematically undermined multilateralism between national governments for four years, impeding action on both the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. But it has remained alive at the subnational level, perhaps to some degree even catalyzed by the inaction from countries. International collaboration is the norm among local governments, who connect with one another, mobilize resources and engage in global advocacy in more than 200 networks worldwide. Good ideas spread quickly, and the sharing of knowledge helps to overcome national exceptionalism.
If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency – and we need to be – then the recovery stimulus will need to be big, green and fast. That is the conclusion of research commissioned by a taskforce of global city mayors, which found that a recovery based on the principles of a Global Green New Deal could prevent runaway climate breakdown. In many major cities, this is already happening. Bogota, Colombia, for example, has implemented a universal basic income and has committed to ambitious carbon reduction targets and green job creation. Rotterdam in the Netherlands is investing in social housing, green city projects and the shift to a hydrogen-based economy in its port. Lisbon in Portgual is turning short-term holiday rentals in the city center into affordable housing for workers. And in Sierra Leone, Freetown is planting 1 million trees.
There are still many uncertainties ahead, but the decisions being taken now will determine not only how quickly we can put the health crisis behind us, but also whether we can avoid slipping from a pandemic into a full-blown climate crisis.
Mark Watts is the executive director of C40 Cities, a network of major global cities committed to action on climate change.
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