Two weeks into a growing COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Eugene, Oregon, Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis had plenty to worry about — from how to protect the community’s homeless population to how to keep services functioning in the face of uncertainty.
The novel coronavirus feels like a slow, invisible tsunami — the kind of risk that earthquake-threatened cities on the US’ west coast are more used to preparing for, she said.
As infection takes hold across the US, “we know the wave is coming — we just don’t know how soon, how high,” she said by telephone.
Illustration: Mountain People
However, Vinis has been thinking ahead. As the US Senate on Wednesday passed a US$2.2 trillion economic rescue package, she wondered if some of the money now or in the coming months might also help her city prepare for another big threat: climate change.
Eugene, a city of about 170,000 people, has created a plan to revamp its six major transport corridors, and to put in place better bus services and new, denser housing along the routes.
In a city where half of polluting emissions come from transport, the projects could get people out of cars, help clean up the air, slash emissions and increase the supply of affordable, energy-smart homes, Vinis said.
However, Eugene so far only has enough cash to construct one of the corridors.
Federal stimulus funds could create construction jobs and boost the city’s virus-hit economy, while also setting it up for a lower-carbon future, the mayor said.
“There’s a huge opportunity for us as a nation” if stimulus cash can also advance green aims, and build next-generation skills and employment in areas such as installing renewable energy or retrofitting buildings, she said.
“This is a moment where we could not just rebuild the society that we have today, but build a better one going forward,” said Vinis, part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network of officials pushing for more equitable, low-carbon communities.
As countries around the world plan stimulus packages to try to prevent their economies from plunging due to coronavirus shutdowns, spending on green infrastructure could help tackle two crises at once, analysts and environmental groups have said.
The US alone would need to spend about US$4.5 trillion over the next 20 years to build a 100 percent renewable power grid capable of running electric transport, said Jeffrey Schub, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for Green Capital.
So far, spending is happening at only about one-quarter of the rate needed, he said.
Nicholas Stern, chairman of the London-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said that the next 10 to 15 years would be “absolutely decisive” in determining whether new roads, buildings and other infrastructure are built to be climate-smart.
Some progress is evident. For example, the British government this month announced ￡1 billion (US$1.19 billion) in spending on green transport in this year’s budget, in part to install rapid charging hubs for electric cars.
In the US, Schub is lobbying to see some of the tidal wave of imminent stimulus cash routed through a set of green banks set up in a dozen states and cities from New York to Florida — or through a proposed national green bank.
Such financial institutions — many of which were established using stimulus funds provided during the 2008 financial crash — use public funds to leverage additional private spending on clean transportation and energy projects.
They have so far provided about US$1 billion in loans to construct about US$4 billion in climate-smart infrastructure, Schub said.
US lawmakers worry that a push for green spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic could look opportunistic, but “you have to put people to work and clean infrastructure is just a really obvious and natural place to do it,” he added.
If governments around the world go heavily into debt to keep their economies moving through the pandemic without spending in a way that also reduces climate risks, they could find themselves out of cash to deal with the next crisis, Schub said.
The first wave of coronavirus stimulus in many places must make sure people have an income as shutdowns spread, said David Miller, director of international diplomacy for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of cities pushing for climate action.
However, a second wave could be about infrastructure and longer-term economic recovery, he added.
“There’s a massive opportunity that we must take to rebuild the economy in a way that’s truly sustainable,” Miller said, adding that there are some good models to follow.
Over the past decade, the city of Austin, Texas, has invested in a huge effort to better insulate homes to help people save on electricity, while installing rooftop solar panel systems to avoid the need for additional grid power.
The city was mainly focused on lowering energy costs and air pollution, and taking advantage of its plentiful sun, rather than tackling climate change, Miller said.
Accra, Ghana’s capital, has put money into a solid-waste collection system and eliminated more than 40 informal waste dumps, improving health and lowering emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as creating jobs, Miller said.
In the US, industries hard-hit by the coronavirus slowdown are clamoring for a share of the government stimulus spending, with airlines alone seeking US$50 billion.
“It’s almost inevitable that these companies will get some government stimulus — let’s call it a bailout,” Miller said, although some members of the US Congress have pushed for industries to commit to lowering emissions in exchange for the help.
Bailouts around the world would be especially worrisome if they prop up fossil fuel firms, hit by both the economic slowdown and low oil prices, said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a Nairobi-based climate and energy think tank.
“It’s possible that a lot of that money could easily be poured into high-carbon industries, which will mean that we could actually end up compounding the climate crisis through how we address the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said. “It is vital that the stimulus they are putting together now, to kick start the economy, is green and is directed at a sustainable path.”
Additional reporting by Megan Rowling
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