Climate and Cities: What to Watch Out For in 2021

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40

Last year defied expectations to become a landmark year for the climate, as a wave of countries announced net zero targets, the price of renewables continued to drop while fossil fuel majors sustained serious reductions in share price, and the pandemic opened a window for us to rethink the way we live.

It’s safe to say the COVID crisis, in most of the world outside of East Asia and Oceania, and the global economic recovery will continue to radically shape our response to the climate crisis in 2021. Here are my top 10 ten things to look out for this year.

  1. Economic stimulus to fund a green and just recovery

How governments invest in the post-pandemic recovery will determine whether we accelerate the transition to a greener, fairer economy or whether we lock-in pollution for decades. C40 research has found that investing in a green economic stimulus could create millions of good green jobs in cities as well as achieving huge health benefits. From a poor start where most funding served to prop up failing polluting industries, there have now been some strong green elements to stimulus packages, most notably in the European Union and USA. If President-Elect Joe Biden, now with a majority in Congress, can deliver his planned $2 trillion green recovery programme it could be a global game-changer. Otherwise expect those countries who have largely got the virus under control, such as China, Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand, to set the trends for others to follow.

2. Climate talks that deliver commitment to immediate action

The big diplomatic success of 2020 was the number of major polluting nations committing to become carbon neutral by mid-century. The task of the COP26 climate talks and the associated Race to Zero platform is to convert those aspirations into concrete commitments to radical, immediate action. The longest term goal we should be talking about is halving emissions by 2030. In the cities’ space, the goal for COP26 is to have at least 1,000 city governments able to set out the action that will deliver on that commitment.

3. A green 14th 5 Year Plan in China

China’s President, Xi Jinping, created huge momentum by declaring peak emission and carbon neutral goals in late 2020. With China well ahead of most of the Western world in overcoming the pandemic, it will set the early pace for global economic recovery in 2021. To date there have not been many specific green commitments, but the decision not to set an economic growth target and the direction of the 14th 5 year plan are ultimately likely to prove some of the most critical decisions of the year for the prospects of global progress on averting climate breakdown.

4. ‘15-minute cities’ become the norm

The pandemic has opened up the space to radically rethink urban planning. COVID-19 has provided a possibly existential challenge to the central business district in many cities, while on the other hand, creating a much bigger opening to reduce the need to travel and have multiple, thriving mixed-use neighbourhoods. Last year many global cities, such as Paris, Milan, Melbourne and Portland, adopted the 15-minute city, or ‘complete neighbourhoods,concept, in which cities align their planning with ensuring that residents can access all their essential needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Expect this trend to continue.

5. A battle to protect mass transit

The health crisis has presented both challenges and opportunities for the future of low-carbon transport. Last year saw a surge in cycling infrastructure and pedestrianisation in cities across the world. A big challenge, however, is the threat to mass transit, as passengers stay away due to perceived health risks or restrictions that limit the possibility of travel. Safe, affordable and high-quality transit in cities is key not only to achieving clean air and emissions cuts, but to improving equity, as essential workers and low income families depend on it. Protecting and championing mass transit will be critical for achieving a green and just recovery in cities and any chance of sustainable urban living into the future.

6. Continuing decline of fossil fuels

For the fossil fuel industry, 2020 was a year of accelerating decline. Last year saw reductions in the consumption of both coal and oil, with the stock market value of fossil fuel majors collapsing accordingly and former energy giant, Exxon, losing its place on the Dow Jones Index after 90 uninterrupted years. Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar energy continued to drop, making renewables the best investment prospect for generating electricity in most parts of the globe. The short-term future of the oil industry will be determined to a certain extent by the trajectory of the pandemic and its impact on travel, but cities have a critical role to play by implementing policies that drive the demand for fossil-free transport, and in taking advantage of low prices and near zero interest rates to invest in new renewable energy.

7. Continuing ecological breakdown

Sadly, it’s safe to say that the damage caused by climate breakdown will become ever clearer. Much of the impact is likely to be felt in the world’s cities; recent research published in the journal Nature found that warming in cities is expected to be substantially higher than surrounding regions due to the urban heat island effect.

8. Rising public concern about climate

Despite initial fears that the pandemic would serve as a distraction from the ecological crisis, a global survey undertaken last year revealed that as many people are concerned about climate breakdown as the spread of infectious disease. In the US, two-thirds of voters in November’s election viewed climate breakdown as a serious problem. With youth activists continuing to organise despite the pandemic, expect climate to remain on the public agenda whatever 2021 brings.

9. Greater integration of racial justice into climate policies

Global Black Lives Matter protests, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of colour brought the issue of racial justice to the top of the news agenda in 2020. The genie is now out of the bottle and as awareness of the link between racial justice and environmental justice continues to rise, we expect the Global Green New Deal approach of marrying equity and climate policies that leading C40 cities adopted in 2019 to become mainstream.

10. Financial support from wealthy nations to poorer countries

In 2009, rich nations agreed to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 to support poor countries to cut emissions and adapt to climate breakdown — a target which has not been met. In March this year, a conference will be held to bring donor countries and vulnerable nations together to address the challenge of climate breakdown and development. Let’s hope rich nations take the opportunity to step up to their commitments.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.

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