Governments can address climate resilience as part of #buildingbackbetter – but Cities and Regions hold the key

Note: All views in this article are those of the author. They do not represent the views of Climate Ready Clyde, any individual partners or Sniffer.

At the height of the pandemic, it felt inappropriate, or slightly callous to be thinking about how we might use the recovery needed from COVID to build back in a way which helps address the climate crisis. During the lockdown, my podcasts and reading have been revisiting those who gave us some of the really big ideas – from Hobbes to Yvuval Noah Harari. And in doing so, they’ve helped me consider how adaptation can make a substantial contribution.

The opportunity of a crisis

As we pass the peak of the virus, and governments are beginning to lay the foundations for economic recovery, we have a short window in which to influence and set out the rationale for taking a very different direction to the one that society was on prior to the lockdown. During one podcast I was reminded of a quote by Milton Friedman:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Say what you like about his economic theories (and there’s a lot to say about neoliberalism), but in this case he was right on the money. Separately, I was reminded by a colleague of the Beveridge Report. Published in 1942, whilst the Allies were still at the height of the second world war, it was picked up by the Government following the war and laid the foundations for the concept of the modern welfare state.

It was Churchill who said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. and we find ourselves in the biggest crisis facing the world since that time, so what are the ideas lying around that we find ourselves reaching for? Enter the green recovery.

A green recovery – An idea lying around that needs dusting off

Building on the concept of the Green New Deal, that has been kicking around for a while, the general proposition is that, similar to Roosevelt’s New Deal, a massive economic stimulus focused on public works and programs, combined with financial reform, and regulation focused on cutting emissions out of the economy whilst creating jobs is what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement. So, it’s not a surprise that we find ourselves reaching for it when we begin to start thinking about how we rebuild and restart after the pandemic.

So far, there have been some excellent articles (the McKinsey one here, a couple of E3G blogs here and here), that have focused on much of the comparisons and differences between coronavirus and the climate crisis. A lot of the thinking highlights that both are global, systemic and non-linear in nature, and related to one another – with climate change exacerbating the risks of pandemics and vice versa. Who wants to be in lockdown during a flood or a heatwave? And similarly, our changing climate makes pests and pathogens more likely. In each case can’t put up borders to address them –therefore we are all in the same boat, with systematic, thoughtful solutions required to address them. We also need to remember that whilst we’re currently focusing on the health and economic crises associated with tackling coronavirus, these are taking place in the context of the existing climate and inequality crises too.

So, with many around the world including the UN calling for a green recovery, it looks a ready-made solution. However, the challenges in getting it right shouldn’t be underestimated. To date, Governments around the world have failed to invest adequately in mitigation and adaptation because of the tragedy of the horizons. So any stimulus package will need careful planning, design, and targeting to cut emissions and reduce climate risks, whilst addressing the short term needs of stimulating the economy and building wider societal resilience to shocks and stresses to get traction.

This changes everything – so where are we starting from?

In thinking about any change, you need to meet people where they are. So, where are we? People around the world have been in their homes for 2 months. Aggregate demand in the economy is at an all-time low, so any real restart of the economy is going to need investment. But people don’t want to go back to normal. Over the long-term people the majority of people agree climate change is as serious crisis as COVID19, whilst only 9% of people want a complete return to normal after the lockdown, driven in part by the wildlife returning, and the cleaner air in our cities as a result of reduced traffic and congestion, whilst the forced nature of home-working has made many realise that existing habits are just that, habits, and that they can be broken and adjusted with relative ease if the will is there – the longer a new ‘normal’ persists, the harder it is to return to ‘business as usual’.

Air quality in many of our town and cities is visibly improved as a result of the lockdown Source: The Guardian

In addition, many of the heavy industries the oil and gas sectors are in crises, as storage fills us, and renewables prove to be cheaper and more resilient as aggregate energy demand drops. These changes have shown us that not only is a new future possible, when the real need is there, it is remarkably easy to achieve.

The economic rulebook doesn’t support adaptation – but now there’s no rulebook.

So far, so good, and the case for investment in mitigation is easy – it cuts emissions, creates jobs at a massive scale, and increases quality of life. But what of adaptation (preparing for the impacts of climate change. In ‘normal’ times, the IPCC highlights a number of financial, technological cognitive, social and cultural barriers that make it difficult to invest in – the benefits don’t accrue to those who pay for it, our future climate is uncertain and we can’t anticipate future weather events like storms or heatwaves to work out the payback, meaning traditional economic notions like cost-benefit analysis become very hard to justify. And this is borne out in the large projected adaptation gap identified by the U.N.

But in addressing the economic crisis, many of these rules went out the window. We didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis before we decided to pay the wages of the majority of the population, or to purchase vaccines and testing kits and PPE at unprecedented scale. Instead, these were what were good value for society, and we were doing what was necessary. Considered from this standpoint, adaptation becomes a much more attractive proposition.

The entry point for adaptation in the green recovery? Involving cities and regions.

The Global Centre on Adaptation highlights that investments in adaptation and resilience yield a triple divided – in addition to building climate resilience, they also reduce pandemic risk and aid economic recovery.

The ‘triple dividend’ of climate resilience in an economic recovery (Source: Global Centre on Adaptation)

Indeed their analysis for Africa shows it has the potential to boost economic performance over the long term.

However, our entry point into designing such packages is profoundly different from other environmental agendas. Whilst many of the other economic stimulus being planned for a green recovery relies on large scale sector-based change (e.g. whole country energy efficiency, or hydrogen or rail investment), the localised nature of climate change means that needs vary from place to place. City and Regional Governments have a much better understanding of their future climate risks, as well as the viability of local adaptation solutions. Therefore, cities and regions need to play a strong role in supporting national Governments to identify investments if adaptation is to take its place alongside other elements of a green recovery.

To illustrate this in a more concrete context, let’s take Glasgow City Region. Last year, Paul Watkiss Associates outlined a range of investments in adaptation that already made economic sense. Here, I’ve expanded the list to include new investments to tackle our climate risks, and outlined a number of synergies, in line with the GCA’s ‘triple dividend’ above.

Adaptation measure Climate Resilience Reduced Pandemic Risk Economic recovery
Heat Health Warning systems Steering public behaviour during times of flood/heat risk Broader direction of general populations – very granular targeting. Reduced health system demand Minor economic stimulus
Property flood resilience Reduced flood risk Reduced water-borne diseases or transmission risk during climate events, or risk of displacement Large-scale labour-intensive installation programme
Advance payment systems Short-term adaptive capacity through extra financial payments ahead of climate impacts Delivery of furlough schemes and adaptive capacity to support shelter in place orders. Continuity of employment, loss avoidance
Green spaces Cooling of wider environment, support of nature migration, Increased physical and mental health opportunities when limited outdoor activities available or social distancing required Uplifts in rateable values / GVA, medium job creation
Flood Risk Management schemes Reduction of flood risk Reduction of systemic risk (e.g. health impacts if combined with climate impacts) Loss avoidance / uplift in rateable values / broad economic stimulus
Property level flood protection Reduction of climate impacts Low systemic risk potential – only very specific households Broad macroeconomic benefit for (1:200+ yr. return periods), very high job creation potential
Building retrofit (Energy Efficiency, cooling/shading, flood resilience) Reduced risk of overheating and health/productivity impacts Increased tolerance for lockdowns as required (lower costs, higher thermal comfort) Large-scale labour-intensive installation programme
Teleconferencing Reduced disruption / productivity Enabling of stay at home policies to minimise transmissions of pests and pathogens Investment in new goods and services associated with homeworking

The above clearly shows there is a substantial logic in investing in adaptation. There are also a couple of other reasons it makes sense fir cities and regions to take a lead in this space. Firstly, they are key places for climate action – they already have clear delivery frameworks for net zero and climate resilience and are now developing advanced, large scale pipelines of projects, with links to all those organisations that can make it happen.

Second, the targeting of these investments could also make a significant contribution to climate justice. We already know that those most vulnerable to climate change are the smallest contributors and least able to adapt. By targeting investments or eligibility criteria to those most vulnerable, builds their resilience and could help limit widening of inequality from climate impacts. But this will only happen if we know where these investments should be directed. Cities and Regions really know their communities, making them able to identify where investments need to go, and communicate with their citizens to enable uptake.

The planning for a green recovery is just beginning, but we will have to move swiftly. Governments will be deciding on their ways forward in the next few months, so we will need to develop clear, practical, credible routes for delivering these. Hopefully the above starts to move us towards a framework which means adaptation won’t be a forgotten piece of our green recovery in Glasgow City Region and wider UK.


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