Recovering from the socioeconomic shock of COVID-19 will not be easy. Effective decisions on where to put investment will be the key to unlocking greater prosperity for developing cities. We discuss what actions developing cities could focus on to kickstart their economies while helping the global fight against climate change.

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic was somewhat unprecedented. In recent times, we have not seen a similar situation where the whole world has come together and aligned in combating a singular threat. In most countries, our response has been dictated by fundamental principles – listening to scientists, and taking swift and decisive action. For climate scientists worldwide, who have fought with public and private decisionmakers for decades, it must surely offer a ray of hope.

It would be naïve to think that we can directly compare the COVID-19 crisis with the climate change crisis. The pandemic led to a situation where we could see its direct impacts very clearly – with media outlets reporting overcrowded hospitals and death rates on a daily basis. Climate change is a much slower process where many will not feel its true impacts for decades to come. With some impacts, such as the rise in coastal sea level, due to the 25-50 year delay between cause (emitting one ton of CO2 into the atmosphere) and effect (climate change), we are only now fully feeling the effects of CO2 accumulation up until the late 1980s. With other impacts, such as urban air pollution, there is very little delay, with the cause of emitting CO2 into the atmosphere felt by citizens imminently. With both cases, unfortunately, the worst is yet to come for future generations, although action today can invoke change.

Linking COVID-19 and climate action in developing cities

Lockdown measures have led to a reduction in pollution and carbon emissions in most countries. In New Delhi, citizens got a rare glimpse of what life would be like with low pollution levels. In April, the sky turned blue, visibility improved and the “Ganges, India’s longest river, had become fit for bathing”. We should learn from these short-lived experiences in our cities. The solution is not to stop all economic activity but to figure out ways in which we can increase our quality of living while also tackling climate change and reducing pollution. These solutions are particularly crucial in developing cities, where consequences of climate inaction will be most exacerbated.

There is a window of opportunity open right now to tackle both crises. It is clear we need to address the economic fallout from COVID-19, but there are ways of doing this that can double as a response to climate change. Many businesses are struggling to stay afloat and there are large numbers of recently unemployed people, with the prospects of them returning to their former jobs seeming unlikely. We need to come up with solutions to help these businesses survive and enable citizens to find worthwhile employment. Investing in sustainable city actions could be one solution.

Opportunities to transform developing cities to tackle COVID-19 and climate change

Developing cities have the potential for rapid transformation. We have seen this in the case of China, where, in the space of a few decades, vacant land has been transformed into cities of opportunity and interaction. In planning our combined response to COVID-19 and climate change, we should look to examples of actions that have worked well in developing cities in the past.

  1. Re-think public and private transport

Cities in western countries historically focused on facilitating the growth of private transport. This led to massive amounts of capital being spent on constructing and maintaining roads within these cities. Daily commuters stuck in traffic jams in Los Angeles would probably tell you that this was a poor use of money. In Europe, Paris is taking a reactive approach and planning to become a “15-minute city” to cut car use, ease congestion, and create a cleaner environment for its citizens.

Rather than make the same mistakes that cities in Europe and the US made, developing cities should shift their focus from private to public forms of transport. This does not have to mean building extensive underground metros. It could be as simple as taking a new approach to get commuters to and from work. A great example of this can be seen in Curitiba, Brazil. In the 80s and 90s, Curtiba’s planners implemented Bus Rapid Transit “as a practical way to create faster mass transit without breaking the bank”. This innovation went on to revolutionise transport, not just in Curitiba, but in cities around the world, implemented in simpler more cost-effective ways in places such as Lagos. Understanding how transport will prepare for a new reality, with shorter-term reduced ridership and the advent of autonomous vehicles in the long run, will be key to coming up with future-proofed transport solutions.

  1. Ramp up development of solar PV

Developing cities in Asia and Africa have a huge opportunity to refocus their energy sectors and target massive scale deployment of solar PV. In October 2020, we saw the International Energy Agency confirm that solar is now the“cheapest electricity in history”. Focusing attention and investment on all sectors of the solar market, from residential to utility scale, can create jobs and reduce the cost of energy for consumers and businesses. This approach will mitigate climate change by switching consumers to a carbon-free source of energy, and can also have positive impacts on social inclusion and state-building in developing cities.

Many emerging countries have already proven an ability to achieve record low solar prices, with Cambodia recording the “lowest power purchase tariff for a solar project so far recorded in Southeast Asia” in 2019. Similarly, the Boa Vista municipality in Brazil became a national leader in distributing solar, and now enjoys 100% clean energy. Furthermore, Kenya is one of the leaders in the field of renewable energy, and is showing how a country and its cities can rapidly transform its energy sector.

For the past decade, Kenya has seen a strong focus on building out wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower plants to transform the energy sector. In 2018, the president of Kenya declared that “Kenya is aiming to be powered entirely by green energy by 2020” . Latest reports indicate that they are close to reaching that target with a 93% share of renewable power. This is far better progress than many developed countries worldwide and gives precedence for what is achievable.

  1. Focus on sustainable housing solutions

Housing is an issue in some form for most cities globally. However, it is especially acute in Africa and other developing nations. A 2017 report from the World Resources Institute stated that “56% of Africa’s urban population live in slums – rising as high as 90% in some countries like Ghana”. This issue needs addressing, especially in the context of Africa’s rapidly growing population.

However, it does not mean that sustainability should be bypassed in the development of housing designs. As well as providing safe and adequate housing, new innovative solutions are needed that incorporate better urban planning, low energy designs, and support the usage of sustainable materials. New housing will serve residents for decades, so it needs a long-term view and long-term solutions that lock-in the economic and social sustainability of developments.

There are many examples of sustainable and financially viable housing designs that have started to surface. The Future Towers development in Pune, India, is a great example of how low-cost housing can be paired with social and economic sustainability. The unique “mountainous” design allows for optimised daylight conditions and a “simple, yet effective natural ventilation system” cools the apartments making air-conditioning units optional for residents. This serves to decrease the building's energy usage and reduce the residents’ energy bills. In addition, the unusual design also creates a number of large open spaces within the building allowing residents to congregate, socialise, and help give a sense of “neighbourhood identity”.

Looking forward

There are many ways of bringing socio-economic benefits to citizens while also helping in the fight against climate change. Action on climate change should not be seen as a financial burden for developing cities; rather, it can be an opportunity to achieve greater economic prosperity and boost living standards. Developing cities did not create the climatic problem, but they can benefit from its solution. When we move past the pandemic and emerge on the other side, the climatic crisis will remain to many, the greatest challenge of our generation. However, it will also remain the greatest impetus for action, an opportunity to transform our cities, economies, and the lives of citizens for the better.