As cities fight COVID-19, could climate action take a back seat?

As a result of COVID-19-related lockdowns, many cities right now look like a shadow of their former selves, with shuttered storefronts, fewer cars and just less bustle in general.

Reduced economic activity has led to decreases in carbon emissions and air pollution, but urban planners worry that as some regions of the world slowly begin to ease restrictions, some of the measures used to maintain physical distance in the short and long term could actually set back climate action.

“What we have to be particularly vigilant about is that we not think we’re making ourselves more safe from pandemics by making ourselves more vulnerable to climate change,” said Brent Toderian, a former city planner for Vancouver who now runs an urban design consultancy. “And it’s entirely possible that that will happen.”

To take one example, urban planners and environmentalists have long touted public transit as the most efficient and sustainable way to move people through cities. But across the globe, transit use has been down — the result of more people working from home as well as an aversion to crowds during a pandemic.

There is evidence that people are opting for the relative safety of automobiles, a major source of carbon emissions. In Wuhan, China, the starting point of the novel coronavirus outbreak, car sales have surged since the country eased lockdown restrictions. In fact, to help its struggling auto industry, the Chinese government is considering easing emissions standards and giving citizens cash incentives to buy new vehicles.

“Cars may be safer in terms of viral spread, but they are not safer in terms of accidents and the other health consequences of car use and car dependency related to pollution,” said Toderian, who noted that climate change has been a factor in amplifying the spread of infectious diseases.

“If we think we’re making ourselves safer by driving more, the opposite is true, and we’re heading down a dark path … because we may be putting our foot on the gas towards more and worse pandemics.”

Rachel MacCleery, senior vice-president at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, said that as scientists try to better understand the transmission of the novel coronavirus, “there will be an understandable desire for people to socially distance in their cars.”

There are signs amid the pandemic that some cities are trying to keep car use in check. Milan, Italy, for example, recently announced a plan to transform 35 kilometres of streets to expand cycling and walking space.

But MacCleery worries that given the economic pain of the shutdowns, municipalities might shy away from investments in public transit, which is vital to the concept of “smart density” — that is, the idea of maximizing land use (from transportation to housing) in a sustainable way.

This is obviously a challenge at a time of physical distancing. Faced with the prospect of close interactions in transit terminals and condominiums, for example, some people might opt for suburban areas, said Ahsan Habib, director of the school of planning at Dalhousie University.

This could encourage more sprawl. “There might be some tendency for people to live in a more scattered fashion, which [urban planners] have been discouraging for a long time,” he said.

MacCleery said that although the pandemic “is an immediate threat,” climate change “is an ever-present threat on the horizon, and we have to make sure our response to the pandemic doesn’t work against efforts to fight climate change.” SOURCE


Andre Mayer

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