COViD-19 and Climate Change – A systems problem requiring a systems solution

by | Apr 27, 2020 | News

I am writing this from home in the middle of the COViD 19 crisis. A lot of the world’s normal, day-to-day activity has rightly shut down to protect vulnerable populations, and yet, facing the certain serious future impact of climate change, we have been much slower to act to protect vulnerable people. With the COViD-19 virus, we can use physical distancing to slow down the spread and impact, but when it comes to climate change, there will be no way to slow it down when the serious impacts come — we have to do the risk reduction right now, while we still have a very narrow window of opportunity. This means flattening the curve of impact to below what human and natural systems will be able to cope with, just as we have done with COViD 19 and hospital capacity.

A very substantial stimulus funding package is likely to be rolled out globally from the end of 2020 and it seems likely from comments made at the current on-line Global Solutions Summit that the G20 may well be called upon to coordinate it, like they did after the 2008 financial crisis. However, this time it is very clear that investments will need to reduce the systematic risk of pandemics and climate change to protect the lives of even more vulnerable people who have slipped or will slip back into poverty, considering potential knock-on effects of food insecurity and increasing lack of access to basic services. This is a huge challenge which can best be done by improving social, economic and green infrastructure and ensuring it delivers much better outcomes for every dollar invested, what is called sustainable infrastructure.

While considerable progress is being made globally in the funding of sustainable infrastructure in both retrofit and new build scenarios, integrated systems-scale planning is still weak. This is in part due to a lack of tools, standards, and certifications for integrated planning at the upstream, policy and the ‘enabling conditions’-end of the infrastructure planning and development cycle. This weakness especially applies to finding the right combination of projects at the right cost to meet long term social and economic service needs, climate resilience, and support ecological preservation and regeneration rather than destruction. The now intensifying global pandemic and associated global economic recession driven by the spread of yet another zoonotic disease (transmission from wildlife to humans) makes it starkly clear that in many regions of the world, these objectives are not well-balanced; rapid urbanization, continuing habitat loss, climate change, and declining biodiversity are all driving greater human-wildlife interaction and resulting impacts. This is due in part to a lack of clear processes for systematically integrating information in planning on social aspects like employment, health and income, critical issues like land ownership and use, and natural capital and biodiversity, increasing climate risks, and how to bring participatory equity into planning and decision-making. These sectors are often managed in isolation by different departments in national and local governments.

Fortunately, new modelling tools are becoming available to bring these aspects into an integrated approach to decision making at both national and local scales, and Resilience Brokers have been working hard to develop and demonstrate them in cities and regions around the world. This approach can help mobilise more affordable integrated systems solutions, such as technologies for decentralised generation, storage and use of renewable energy, water supply, waste management in circular systems and electric mobility, and nature-based solutions for cooling and managing flooding in urban areas. These tools can also help identify essential services provided by ‘natural infrastructure’—i.e., functioning ecosystems—and their relative costs and benefits compared to, or complementary with, engineered systems. 

We need to deliver quality sustainable infrastructure on a scale significant enough and at an affordable price to help meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This needs to embrace the post-2020 framework of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) for habitat preservation and conservation as well as revised country commitments on climate mitigation and adaptation under the Paris Agreement. In order to do this a variety of policy changes, new data systems and funding vehicles will be necessary to facilitate integrated systems planning and de-risked investments in critical infrastructure across all sectors and we have brought together a large multi-disciplinary group to explore this and provide advice on this in the lead up to G20 meetings in November 2020.

The rapid spread of the Novel CoronaVirus and associated COVID-19 illness—and global economic impacts—are powerful indicators of current societal imbalances in meeting these larger societal goals. We already see the link between higher death rates in the United States and long term air pollution and poverty.

Improvements in early, system-scale planning for sustainable infrastructure investments are essential to reduce risks and build resilience to similar future shocks. There are many benefits of deploying integrated systems planning, including improved urban-rural linkages, enhanced climate resilience and energy efficiency, water and food security, and maintaining and improving ecosystem health. Extending and retrofitting hard and soft infrastructures to link rural areas with urban areas and protecting their shared ecosystems are critical to this. 

Taking a systematic approach to estimating service needs, the new, retrofit, and natural infrastructure needed to meet them and the funding required to supply the infrastructure needed (capital and operations and maintenance), shows that a smart integrated systems approach can reduce total annual investment by 40%, amounting to moving from 8% GDP per annum to a more manageable 4.5% GDP per annum. Delivery can be done through public-private-partnerships in which the public sector can deliver the socio-economic and environmental improvements they need and the private sector can get an acceptable return on their capital over the project lifetime.

Indeed Resilience Brokers are providing detailed insight to support both capital and operational investments into green and blue infrastructure as part of the City Finance Lab, Europe’s first dedicated platform to help develop innovative finance solutions for green urban projects. Our work included supporting cities in Norway to align long term investments with national climate targets and with a consortium in Manchester to ensure their green and blue infrastructure plans in the Northern Gateway are financed for the long term.

Such savings can be found in energy demand reduction combined with decentralised renewable energy supply and storage, nature-based solutions for flood mitigation and urban heat stress reduction. Increasing the efficiency of public infrastructure spending combined with risk assessment methods to improve resilience can also lead to an increase in the contribution of the private sector as the investment environment becomes more attractive. Economic returns associated with climate resilient development are reported as positive for the overwhelming majority of publications reviewed. The benefit/cost ratios are often 3:1 and in some cases as high as 50:1. This means there are huge benefits in risk-informed integrated systems planning in terms of reduced risks, lower investment costs and improved returns, providing big incentives for the public and private sectors to take them up.

Integrated, systems-level infrastructure planning approaches are inherently complex due to the multiple interdependencies of infrastructure systems in different sectors and the necessary requirement to account for community needs, ecological protection and regeneration, and the ecosystem services provided as a result, natural resources oversight and efficiencies, soils, land, sea, and food systems, and urban resilience. Most of all, planning needs to include flexibility and robustness in order to adjust to changing social, economic and climate conditions over time. Indeed, there is a large gap currently in the data specifications, tools and capacity to undertake this type of dynamic infrastructure planning and meaningful engagement with communities.

Sustainable infrastructure is at the heart of multiple UN global agreements and agendas and has historically been a central component of previous G20 agendas, including the Argentine and Japanese presidencies. While the agreement was made during previous presidencies—including agreement around the Principles of Quality Infrastructure—there are still enormous opportunities, through adopting risk-based integrated systems planning, for the G20 to set the agenda and take advantage of the benefits of up to 40% savings in total infrastructure investment costs from decentralised technologies combined with nature-based solutions and create enabling conditions for future investments while simultaneously meeting the goals of the SDGs, Paris, CBD, Sendai, New Urban Agenda agreements and tackling the pandemic and climate risks.

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My previous blog posts

Making City-Region Resilience Affordable and Practical

Triggering a “great mobilisation” to deliver the Global Goals

New Urban Agenda Implementation: Transformative governance and planning partnerships with community collaboration

Resilience Brokers are here to set city-regions on the path to achieving the Global Goals