The COVID-19 pandemic could have unexpected implications for the fight against climate change and how we design our cities.

    One of the most widely felt measures taken to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic is lockdown. Implemented with differing levels of strictness in different countries, large chunks of the global population has spent 2020 largely indoors. And when people are able to venture outside, social distancing is the norm, while national and international travel have both been curtailed to an extent that would be unimaginable last year.

    Lockdown is a response to a health crisis that has in turn caused a massive economic shock. But it could also be something that can be seen an opportunity to consider how cities can be organised to meet the climate change challenge, said Greg Clark, Global Head, Future Cities and New Industries, HSBC and Global Fellow, Brookings Institution and Honorary Professor, University College London.

    Speaking at HSBC’s recent China Conference, Mr. Clark discussed a number of ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic could be a catalyst for change – in particular, using the experience of lockdown to see how cities can be designed to reduce society’s reliance on carbon.

    “We need to recognise how the pandemic can change our behaviour in relation to new ways of managing and shaping urbanisation, delivering urban systems and services, as well as tackling climate change and carbon intensity,” he said.

    Climate change and the new normal

    The relationship between urban life and climate change is nothing new. In fact, cities are the most carbon efficient way organise human life, said Mr. Clark, as long as they are well managed and have adequate infrastructure. But when a city’s infrastructure is not sufficient to meet the needs of the local population, a whole range of environmental problems arise – such as excessive CO2 emissions, congestion, and heat island effects.

    At the same time, cities are the population centres that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is especially true for coastal cities that will be hit by rising sea levels. “Cities have a vested interest in fighting climate change,” he said.

    The connection between COVID-19 and climate change can be seen in the quality of the air in many large cities. The virus has revealed the vulnerability of urban populations, especially people with pre-existing respiratory health issues, much of which was caused by prior levels of high pollution.

    “Put as its most simple, COVID-19 has reconnected the planetary health and the health of humans through air quality, respiratory health, food systems, and a low touch/low carbon experiment,” he said.

    The follow-on idea is that the lockdown measures that have resulted in cleaner air for many places might hold the key for what the new normal in the post-pandemic world will look like. From a commercial point of view, it is crucial to consider how the immediate sectoral impacts of the virus will translate into new ways of doing business in the future.

    The need to rethink business practices is clear from different way parts of the economy have been impacted. A lack of resilience in international supply chains for example, has disrupted the flow of trade in food and other domestic goods, while meeting the spike in demand for medical protective equipment has been a challenge for governments in many countries.

    On the plus side, there has been a rapid acceleration of the digital transformation. In many industries, working from home has become the norm, while distance learning has allowed millions of children to keep studying while schools are closed. Online shopping is also received a boost, as people buy their necessities from home.

    The result, said Mr. Clark, is that we quickly switched to an economy that is low-touch, low-mobility, low-consumption, and perhaps most importantly, low-carbon.

    “Lockdown has been a ‘proof of concept’; it shows that it is possible for large numbers of people to love and work whilst expending much less carbon. This leads to a fresh expectation that we will be able to take this ‘carbon-frugal’ approach to how we live and work in the future,” he said.

    Cities of the future

    Changes in how we live will also affect where we live. Cities will accordingly adjust to new needs. The way that this trend will play out in practice is still a matter of debate. Mr. Clark rejects the idea that there will be a move towards deurbanization, which will take place alongside an expected dismantling of globalisation.

    “Cities still host many amenities, systems, and assets that we need to use, and the advantages of proximity, agglomeration, and interaction remain very high, if we can also maintain public health and safety,” he said. “That said, our short sojourn into the virtual city that many people have been going through has proved to have advantages in efficiencies, even if we have lost some creativity.”

    Instead he favours the concept of a blended city, which takes the assets and opportunities provided by proximity and combines them with the advantages of the virtual city. Life in this new urban form will require a new industry mix, multiple centres and nodes, as well as a rethinking of what means to be a resident. Someone might mostly work remotely most of the time, some distance from the office, where they only need to be present a few times a month.

    China offers a model for this kind of distributed urbanisation, which Mr. Clark characterises as a population shared between neighbouring locations that are close enough to constitute a single labour market. The country already has a range of so-called super clusters, such as the Greater Bay Area, where cities are part of regional systems connected by transport systems.

    “The ‘Blended City’, where we combine physical and virtual realms more optimally, could be a more sustainable and resilient model in terms of reducing excess population over the carrying capacity of any individual city, by distributing urbanisation more broadly to ignite the next part of our journey towards zero carbon cities,”  he said.

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