OPINION: How can a coronavirus response reduce inequity and protect the climate?

by Elizabeth Sawin | @bethsawin | Climate Interactive
Thursday, 9 July 2020 12:33 GMT

A view of the Bela Vista do Jaraqui, in the Conservation Unit Puranga Conquista along the Negro River banks, where Ribeirinhos (forest dwellers) live, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Manaus, Brazil, May 29, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Amid a triple crisis, a 'multisolving' response can mitigate the effects of the pandemic, inequity and climate change all at once

Elizabeth Sawin is Co-director of Climate Interactive, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps people see what works to address climate change and related issues like energy, health, equity, food security and disaster risk reduction

Everywhere you look, records are being broken: record high numbers of people filing unemployment claims; record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in many states; record numbers of people in the streets protesting for racial equity; and the highest temperatures ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.

Three crises are being revealed to us at once – the pandemic and its resulting economic disruption; inequity, created and sustained by economic and policy structures; and climate change, with its ongoing deadly progression of floods, fires, storms, and droughts.

The interconnection of the three crises is clear, but you wouldn’t know that from the way many decision makers are addressing the crises in isolation from each other. A recent article in Yale Environment 360 reported that trillions of dollars meant to spur recovery from the pandemic are being spent in ways that will increase the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and support the longevity of even the shakiest parts of the fossil fuel industry.

That’s like borrowing from a loan shark to pay off a credit card bill. You may have addressed one immediate source of your pain (economic downturn), but you’ve added to a much bigger problem (climate change) in the not-too-distant future.

That’s not all. A fossil fuel-intensive COVID-19 recovery will solidify, not undo, inequity. The harms of fossil fuel-dependent energy systems -- from air and water pollution to toxic emissions near refineries – are disproportionately felt by low-wealth communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups. Given this state of affairs, investments in fossil energy are also investments in prolonged and exacerbated inequality.

But, another approach is gathering momentum. This approach uses ‘multisolving’ to design investments so cleverly that they bolster economies against the downturn while also lowering emissions and improving equity.

My colleagues and I at Climate Interactive have been tracking these innovations in a growing database we call GREAT – Green, Resilient, and Equitable Actions for Transformation, and the examples are inspiring. Here are some examples of actions taken at various levels of decision making:

PUBLIC UTILITIES

A “green stimulus” program tied to COVID-19 recovery at the Burlington, Vermont municipal electric utility helps make electric bikes available to low-income residents who use the bikes to commute to work. The stimulus also provides up to 100% of the costs for energy efficiency upgrades for affordable housing providers. A different Vermont utility announced measures that allow net metering customers to share solar credits with small businesses struggling to get back on their feet, as well as a program that rewards efforts by customers to reduce peak electricity with donations to the statewide foodbank.

CITIES

Officials in Medellin, Colombia are directing stimulus funding towards installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure, making e-bikes more available, expanding bike lanes by 50%, and doubling the number of bus, tram, and train lines. In this way, the city is using the restart of the economy to also help meet emissions reduction goals. Since public transportation and cycling infrastructure, if developed with robust community input, give people who might not have a vehicle access to mobility, they can be equalizing forces in a community. From Paris to Boston, from Seattle to Vilnius, cities are responding to the pandemic by opening up streets to walking, cycling, and open-air dining. Amsterdam announced in April that its COVID-19 recovery is designed using the ‘doughnut economics’ model, which prioritizes the wellbeing of all citizens as well as ecological sustainability. This month Copenhagen proposed to do the same.

STATES

New York State announced a program to “help underserved New Yorkers access clean, affordable and reliable solar,” as part of an effort to jumpstart the state’s economy. New Jersey announced a series of initiatives, funded by carbon cap-and-trade revenues, as part of COVID-19 recovery efforts. From transportation to urban forestry projects, and the establishment of a Green Bank, many of the elements of the program emphasize environmental justice and equity.

NATIONS

From Nigeria to Malaysia, nations are including investments in a low-carbon economy in their COVID-19 recovery plans. They are making investments in LED lighting, rooftop solar, transmission lines, and more, while targeting at least some of these projects toward underserved areas. Other countries, including the UK, have announced investments in walking and cycling infrastructure. Still others, like New Zealand, are investing in the protection and restoration of biodiversity.

So far, multisolving approaches like these are small in comparison to the huge investments that are locking in more climate change and prolonging inequity. Nonetheless, these innovations are everywhere: in countries large and small, in cities, and in rural areas.

With stimulus and recovery plans being debated and enacted every day, there is no time to waste.  We must ensure that all decisionmakers follow the lead of these innovators and address climate change and inequity in their recovery investments.