From Wuhan to New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus is moving from east to west and leaving a staggering number of corpses behind. We read of alarming reports, contradictory news, and reminded every day that we live in unprecedented and difficult times. One good news, however: emissions in cities are on the decline, and nature is running its regenerative course. But how long will this last?
After the lockdown in Italy, social media was flooding of reports of the clear waters of the Venice Canals, and of the return of ocean organisms. These were compounded by increasing headlines of noticeable decline in emissions in various cities and countries. For instance, China, which had increasing emissions in the past years had a 25% decrease in emissions since the beginning of the year. Italy, UK and France reported a 16% decrease in the month of March since the start of lockdown. New York is also reported to have had a 50% reduction in pollution.
Such decline was anticipated as COVID-19 continues to prompt more lockdowns across cities, regions and countries; thus, impacting sectors like transport, industry and manufacturing and tourism, among others. Those have for long contributed greatly to emissions, especially due to their reliance on non-renewable sources of energy. Furthermore, the lockdown has reduced excessive consumerism behaviors as approximately over 3 billion people -equivalent to approximately 40% of the world’s population, are confined in homes; hence, not consuming and contributing less to pollution generating activities.
Varying cities respond to lockdowns differently; I previously documented the Wuhan one on ArchDaily. While it is noted to bring a breath of fresh air, on the economic front things are very much different. All the stringent measures taken globally have heavily impacted the global economy and experts warn of a looming recession that may be unlike any other. As of now, there are reports of massive job loss, reduced salaries and wages, closure of prominent businesses, and to make matters worse, the stock market has plummeted; all this without noting the health crisis. On this, most countries are expected to be impacted and to be better-prepared governments have been seen to adopt aggressive economic stimulus packages, and for countries without cash influxes, calls for external loans are being made., African finance ministers, for example, sought for an urgent $ 100 billion loan, including the postponement of loan obligation to external debtors. Many local governments in less urbanized regions will soon face a cash-22 situation as they become aware that they cannot manage to afford a total lockdown, as most of its population live in rural areas where the implementation of such measures would be difficult. Proposing a total lockdown would mean to institute humanitarian measures, which, a majority of them would not be in a position to do. Such would plunge them even deeper into greater debts, and with the upcoming recession, it would take decades to recover.
Another anticipated challenge is that of sustainability, as most developing economies are seeking a rapid rebound from the recession. On this, the term ‘stimulus package’ is now becoming a common term to the layperson. It aims to employ strategies to safeguard activities and liveability, but it comes at a cost.
Aggressive policies on this may lead to increasing emission-related activities, and such would plunge vulnerable economies to more challenges relating to climate change, food insecurity, and poverty. While this may sound overly alarmist, a survey of the past recession reveals the importance of those economic stimulus packages and bailout packages, used by a number of governments around the world. While such stimulus is necessary and inevitable to re-start economic engines, if they are not carefully crafted, cities around the world may face a harsh reality regarding climate change policies. This is because bailing our heavy fossil fuel industries may save jobs in the short term but will tie the city and jurisdiction to those during decades to come.
This is further compounded by the plummeting of oil prices; hence, aiding as an immediate short-term competitive edge against renewable energy. With these facts, it is necessary to ensure that long-term urban policy supporting a shift to renewable energy is not overshadowed by the COVID-19 emergency economic responses. A balancing act is necessary to ensure that short term solutions are found while still ensuring a sustainable long-term outcome for cities.
This is particularly important to note, underline and re-iterate, especially noting that in times of uncertainties like we are in, decisions are made in silos, with little or no consultation or cross-disciplinary talks. During this time, we face the risk that binding global agreements, like the Paris agreement, is sidetracked, with severe long-term impacts. This is of great importance to us as cities are responsible for approximately 78% of emissions, and post-COVID19 recession without effective commitments to the global agreements in place, we will see emissions increase.
While emergency economic responses crafted to address the short-term crisis that we face may not immediately pose problems on sustainability agendas, we need to be careful of its impacts post-COVID19. On this, we have a strong precedent. After the 2008 recession, it was observed that emissions increased by approximately 6.1% -to 9.2 billion tons from 8.6 billion tons in 2009. Emissions did not only increase but accelerated. This may very much happen again this time and will be partly contributed by re-starting construction sites that are on a standstill around the world.
This is an alarming forecast, and while there is little we can do regarding immediate policies -as the world is in crisis mode, we need to collectively raise awareness of the upcoming issue in design circles. Buildings and construction equate to around 39% of emissions globally. So, we do have some leverage here. It will be critical for the years to come that we further push for designs that align with sustainability calls, thus, compensating for upcoming emissions spike.
Architecture has often been hailed as a tool for shaping communities, cities, and countries. Architects love to showcase creativity and leadership and praise the discipline for its multi-faceted approach towards finding solutions to complex problems. It is now time to show it. The lead by this industry, post COVID-19, to ensure reduced emissions can also inspire others, like manufacturing and transport to adhere to more sustainable practices. After the unfolding of the coronavirus story, it will be time for leadership and inspiration. It will be time for a truly committed architecture aimed at regenerating both the social and environmental fabric.
Author: Zaheer Allam