Tuesday 24 November 2020 3:49 am

We can no longer ignore the link between human and planetary health

Professor Greg Clark is global head of future cities and new industries to HSBC, and board member of both Transport for London and London Economic Action Partnership

As businesses across all sectors make their way through the final week of a second lockdown period away from the City, there is a widespread expectation that the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic must include a lasting environmental legacy. 

Sustainability has become a key motif of recovery strategies not just in the UK, but at regional, national and international level. The mantra “build back better” has been adopted by both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, before being echoed by politicians across the world. 

This is a prime example of how actors from across the spectrum of interests are now borrowing from the resilience phrasebook.

Read more: Can the government hit the targets in its 10 point climate plan?

So why has this renewed global commitment to addressing climate change and desire to make our cities more sustainable been prompted by a public health emergency?

First, vulnerability to the virus is clearly shaped, at least partially, by environmental factors. Those who suffer from pre-existing respiratory conditions are among the groups most susceptible to infection, and most likely to suffer severe complications. We know that there is a high correlation between respiratory illness and air quality. Covid, therefore, has given us a stark example of how climate change affects your health.

Lockdown has also prompted a large-scale experiment in new modes of living and working. This new low-contact, low-consumption, low-mobility way of life has resulted in double digit carbon savings. And for all the fear about productivity losses, these have in fact been lower than were anticipated. 

In other words, we have proven that economic productivity can be decoupled from carbon emissions.

These are among the numerous reasons why the link between human and planetary health has been so heavily underlined during this crisis. Climate adaptation and pandemic mitigation are, in effect, inseparable concerns.

In recent years, we have made substantial progress in understanding the relationship between urbanisation and climate change. The zero-carbon cities agenda, supported by the OECD, WEF, and C40 network, among other bodies, is a key platform for this. 

Cities are the key focus for decarbonisation because cities are where work, buildings, mobility, consumption, communication, and waste all come together.  

This vision of the clean, connected and compact city, powered by renewable energy and adjusted for liveable density and minimal waste, is ambitious but — crucially — achievable. Megacities including London, Paris, New York, Seoul and Sao Paulo have pledged to get there by 2050. 

Some smaller cities are aiming to move even faster. In Copenhagen, municipal leaders believe that they can reach carbon neutrality in just five years’ time. The Danish capital is already one of the world’s greenest cities. It is surely no coincidence that it is also frequently listed among the urban centres most likely to emerge from the pandemic with an enhanced global reputation.

There is a critical role for progressive finance in this transition. It is too easy to assume that new technology platforms alone — or changes in citizen behaviours, or switches in energy sources — can do it. In fact, the zero-carbon city is a mix of multiple systems that become increasingly integrated and interdependent, so that waste becomes fuel, travel becomes exercise, buildings produce rather consume energy, and products become shareable services.

It is about connecting these systems up so that they accelerate one another. 

It is green finance that makes this possible. All of these adaptations require investment, and that investment is now able to recognise and count the “external returns” in cleaner air, reduced waste, lower levels of illness, and greater productivity, as well as the “internal returns” in revenues, assets, and profits. 

That is what green finance does — and because global investors increasingly want to support decarbonisation, it is possible for banks to provide enhanced terms, providing an incentive to make these adaptations more quickly and fully.       

Covid-19 is, above all, an environmental crisis. As well as being cleaner and more prosperous, the net-zero city will be healthier and more resilient to the spread of serious illness. That this fact does not seem to have been lost on policymakers, business leaders and the general public gives us good cause to be encouraged.

Read more: Explainer: What are green bonds? And how will the UK’s first green gilts work?

Main image credit: Getty

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