A decarbonized recovery against climate emergency: 3 lessons cities have learned during the pandemic

By  | 2021

This article about cities and climate emergency is part of the series
‘One Year After: Urban Learnings from a year of pandemic’
— by anteverti team

In May of 2020, while most of the planet was locked down, we wrote an article on how, in the face of this health crisis and the impact it was having on urban environmental quality, cities would be able to advance towards local sustainability and the preservation of environmental quality in the post-Covid era.

One year later, we have believed it to be relevant to look back at the tendencies that we predicted, contrast them with what happened in the last few months, and define what is yet to come in the fight against the climate emergency in cities, as they move forward towards recovery.

Just as we predicted, tactical urban planning measures gained momentum, it became more clear than ever how interdependent and cross-sectional our planet’s challenges are, and how both becoming zero carbon and enhancing local engagement have become two pillars to all future-proof cities. On the other hand and in alignment with the European Green Deal, we have also seen a significant tendency towards considering citizens as essential, active components of the economic recovery with an environmental lens, instead of seeing them as consumers and passive receivers of solutions and urban services.

What can we expect of the future of cities in terms of the climate emergency? How will we secure urban recovery as well as its decarbonization, circularity and energy sovereignty? What will local sustainability look like after Covid-19?

Taking into consideration previous and prospective predictions, we have identified three lessons that cities have learned during the pandemic that will be highly relevant to their future.

Tactical urbanism: a way to eagerly try out feasible futures

As soon as lockdown measures eased and citizens were allowed to leave their homes in spring of 2020, one thing became evident: social distancing needed to be ensured in the public space in order to keep the virus’ transmissions at their lowest. 

In light of such higher relevance of outdoor communal places for citizens in each neighbourhood – to be used for physical outdoor activity and Covid-19 testing locations, among others – tactical urbanism proved to be a powerful tool to find quick and low-cost solutions to such urban problems. This kind of urbanism, just like urban acupuncture, uses agile and small-scale interventions that if successful, can be scaled up and solve larger urban challenges. On this occasion, we have seen it in the occupation of parking spaces for restaurants’ terraces, or in the pedestrianisation of entire blocks and their surrounding streets.

Ensuring a higher rate of public space over automobile-reserved land, through amplifying pavements to ensure enough distance among pedestrians, is already a key solution to adapt cities and lower transmissions while ensuring a quick response to the health crisis. Measures of this kind prove that urban density is not the problem, and as we mentioned in the last article, density makes cities more efficient in terms of providing services and solutions to this crisis.

Drawing from some of the examples that we described a few months ago, in the last year sustainable mobility models have been promoted, and urban spaces have been transformed in favor of active transport modes such as cycling lanes or the aforementioned wider sidewalks. But do we want to get back to how our streets were a year ago? Or has the population’s response been positive, urban emissions and noise pollution have lowered, and such measures have encouraged a healthier lifestyle in citizens? 

2020’s lockdown proved to be an opportunity to effectively test, without high infrastructure expenses, new mobility and public space models that can set the direction towards sustainable and feasible directions. As we progressively approach the end of this pandemic, let’s keep, replicate and expand urban interventions that make our cities more accessible, liveable, and less polluted both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and acoustic noise. At the same time, let’s keep in mind that a balance needs to be found when implementing these measures, so that the revaluation of the neighbourhoods involved does not lead to detrimental processes such as gentrification.  Therefore, out of all the possible recovery pathways we can take in urban areas, it is worth choosing those who are most sustainable, and mindful of social and environmental wellbeing.

Recovering from this pandemic is a strategic opportunity for cities to become circular and self-sufficient

Covid-19 has shown the need for self-sufficient systems in cities, not only for materials, food and water supply, but also for energy sovereignty. All this adds up to the urgency of a drastic carbon footprint reduction, and economic and social recovery to tackle the pandemic effects. Given these circumstances, is it possible to achieve the systemic shift we need, which builds long-term resilience, generates economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits?

The circular economy represents a strategic opportunity to become the new normal in cities. This pathway with local aspiration – but that responds to global responsibility –  must be supported by a transversal vision through the 2030 Agenda and the EU Green Deal – where the Circular Economy Action Plan is a key pillar. However, it is important not to simplify the circular economy approach to only recirculate flows of waste: circular cities consist of an ecosystem of flows, such as waste and different materials, the built environment, water, and a special emphasis on food and energy sovereignty. 

Cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Brussels, Helsinki or Cape Town are on the track to make the circular shift. It is noteworthy the case of Amsterdam: to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, the city decided to implement the Oxford-made Doughnut City Model – which provides a framework for a circular economy –, a system that seeks to meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet.

As mentioned before, the food system has emerged as a major worry during the Covid-19. Some cities – especially in northern Europe – have realized the potential of circular economy to shape a healthy and food-secure food system. The “Farm to Fork Strategy” of the EU Green Deal plays a key role for that matter. Also, this year Barcelona becomes the World Sustainable Food Capital for 2021 and hosts the 7th Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Global Forum — the international city pact on food, that underlines the strategic role of cities in the development of sustainable food systems.

Another key intervention point is the built environment and the energy use. In cities, buildings are the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions: according to UNEP, they produce around 38% of polluting gases emissions. To tackle this issue, building materials could be made from traceable and recyclable materials or they could absorb carbon dioxide. In addition, the new building environment could treat wastewater and produce energy by its own.

But how can we transform the built environment into more efficient and energy-saving spaces to live in? The use of technical tools such as life-cycle analysis (LCA), Building information modeling (BIM) and innovative perspectives are seen as a robust instrument to rapidly stimulate the economy while helping to achieve climate targets. Renovating using circular strategies through innovation can bring economic benefits by the creation of new jobs and the attraction of European funding. 

Energetic communities are the cornerstones of our urban future – and here’s why

As we said in our previous analysis, cities with zero emissions will be those that become prepared for the future. In this sense, the European political framework fixes the route map to achieve Climate Neutral Cities in a context where the citizens have ceased to be the passive recipient of public policies to become an active part of the definition and solution of environmental challenges.

The European Union has set a mission and objective for 100 European cities to be climate neutral by 2030 «by and for the citizens» within the Horizon Europe Framework. 100 cities that will become hubs of innovation, with new models of urban governance for climate action, where citizens will be central in the energy value chain — as prosumers: both consumers and producers of energy. Thus, citizenship becomes one more stakeholder of the Climate City Contract that will set the objectives and the roadmap to achieve climate neutrality locally.

Aware that buildings account for 40% of energy demand, they become an objective on which to act in terms of energy efficiency and the use of renewable energies. It is at that time that local energy communities can be established.

Local energy communities bring together actors from the same field in a given urban environment to collaborate around energy efficiency and / or the production of renewable energies for self-consumption. For that reason, the main purpose of energy communities is to provide environmental, economic or social benefits to their partners or members in a framework of democratic governance — without financial benefits.

Either individuals, SMEs or local authorities can be partners or members of such communities. Thus, a group of neighbors, a union, or an association of SMEs that share a building could become an energy community that produces, consumes, stores and sells energy from renewable sources.

The future of energetic communities will pave the way towards collaborative, sufficient and resilient neighbourhoods, which will cooperatively advance and withstand through the urban challenges that are yet to come.

All in all…

As said a few months back, the current moment poses an unmissable opportunity, or even a last chance, to advance towards the decarbonization of the economy through a clean energy transition that involves and benefits citizens. 

And we take this occasion to also underline the important role of urban wellbeing and sustainability regardless of the challenge and budget – as proven by tactical urbanism – and the need of a shift towards self-sufficient and circular cities to achieve climate targets. This comprehends a transition, where socio-technical innovation, building and transfer of knowledge and capacity, the collaboration between sectors, investment, citizen engagement, and job creation through circular and carbon positive business models are required.

However, the pandemic has aggravated an economic and social emergency, and that is why the ecological transition needs to be just and inclusive, combining two domains – social and ecological – and two scales – local and global –. Climate risks implies a significant threat multiplier and a source of instability, how governments act today will shape the post-Covid-19 world for generations to come. Thus, taking this momentum to foster resilient and inclusive cities while tackling the climate emergency is imperative.

🌱 During the #pandemic, many of the quick and low-cost solutions cities designed to contain the virus also helped to fight #ClimateEmergency. #OneYearAfer, how can we translate these learnings into a #ZeroCarbon future? | An analysis by @anteverti 👇 Clic para tuitear

All images featured in this post are licensed under the Unsplash License as royalty free photos.

Want to keep reading about the urban impact of Covid-19?

Want to speak
to our experts?

Drop us a line!

    About the authors

    Former Consulting Director & Expert in Urban Sustainability, Public Policies and Citizen Engagement at Anteverti | + posts

    Ana Alcantud was Anteverti's Consulting Director for local, European and international projects until 2022, leading the teams working with public and private stakeholders – such as the IADB, UN, the European Union or the Provincial Council of Barcelona.

    Ana Alcantud is a sociologist, with a Master in Local Governance, Sustainability and Participation (UAB) and certified by the Programme for Directive Development (IESE). She has 25 years of background developing strategies, plans and agendas related to urban sustainability, public policies and citizen engagement as well as an extensive experience in European projects (6FP, 7FP, LIFE and H2020). She has also been collaborating with the Global Taskforce on Sustainable Public Procurement promoted by UN Environment.

    Since 2022, Ana is Manager of the 4locaLHealth project for L'Hospitalet de Llobregat City Council, an initiative focused on promoting the use of all available technological resources to improve public health in Catalonia's second largest city.

    Senior Consultant & Expert in Creative Urban Solutions, Eco-innovation, Environmental Resilience & Circularity at Anteverti | + posts

    Mons Badia is an expert in eco-innovation, sustainable and resilient urban development and creative and cross-cutting urban solutions. She has been working at Anteverti since 2017, where she is a senior specialist of the Smart City Expo World Congress team and content coordinator for Tomorrow.city. She has also developed smart city and smart region strategies as a consultant.

    Mons serves as the President of the College of Environmental Scientists of Catalonia, and has previous professional experience working in the United Nations Global Compact, in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and in the Universitat de Barcelona, as well as in the consulting firm Inèdit.

    Mons Badia has a degree in Environmental Sciences and Fine Arts (Universitat de Barcelona), and is currently studying a Master's Degree in Philosophy for Contemporary Challenges (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya).

    Circular Economy Consultant and Expert in People-Centered Eco-Innovation at Deloitte España | + posts

    From 2020 to 2021, Marta Santamaría worked at anteverti as a consultant and Programme Coordinator of the Smart City Expo abroad events.

    Marta's interests are related to urban sustainability and people-centered eco-innovation, a field of research where she has been awarded several awards for designing social and environmental impact business ideas. Her research experience has allowed her to work on European projects on the application of the principles of circular economy to design and to the organization of events and conferences. In addition, she has also collaborated on projects related to climate change governance and adaptation on the Mediterranean coast.

    In 2021, Marta joined Deloitte España as a Circular Economy Consultant.

    Marta holds a degree in Engineering in Industrial Design and Product Development (Universitat Politècnica de València and Technical University of Denmark) and a Master s in Sustainability Science and Technology (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya), specialized in circular economy and urban innovation.

    Share this: