How mayors are shifting the global agenda on a green recovery

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

In her 2019 book, the Case For the Green New Deal, economist Ann Pettifor predicted that: ‘sooner rather than later, the world is going to be faced with a shuddering shock to the system….the question then will be: what comes next?’ The world was not prepared for the crisis of 2007–2009, she argued, so it didn’t lead to political responses that built something different and better. This time we must be clear about what kind of a world we want.

A year later that shock to the system has certainly happened. So are we clear on what kind of a world we want, and are we responding any better now than in 2009?

At the beginning of May this year, 38 global mayors released a statement of principles for shaping the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis; a vision for the future based on public investment, climate action, equity and community resilience. By July a task force of 10 global mayors had developed these principles into the C40 Mayors Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, outlining the actions needed to deliver the vision. Mayors will lead on green and inclusive jobs, providing fundamental public services and giving public space back to people and nature.

This agenda signals a marked divergence from the thinking prevailing in many countries before the crisis, in which neoliberal economics cut public services and pursued profit-increasing economic growth regardless of the cost to the majority of people and the planet we rely on to survive. Is such a paradigm shift really achievable, and how? Pettifor quotes systems-thinker Donella Meadows:

‘You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of visibility and power.’

Global mayors have been doing exactly that. They are clear about the failures of the old paradigm; their agenda states that there must be no return to a ‘business as usual’ that would put the world on track for 3℃ of heating, and there must be an end to public investment in fossil fuels. As for making the new paradigm visible, the work of shifting to a cleaner and more equitable economy was underway in global megacities before the green recovery was thought of. The city of Los Angeles began its Green New Deal in April 2019, and immediately set a direction by announcing the closure of gas plants and large scale expansion of renewable energy. Similarly, Amsterdam is pioneering the ‘Doughnut’ economic model to achieve its vision of becoming a ‘thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens, while respecting planetary boundaries.’

In the words of New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell: ‘In the City of New Orleans with these green and blue infrastructure projects that are happening, [people are] seeing in real-time the impact, not only that it has on the communities in which they live….But also when you tie that to real jobs and allowing people to earn higher than a living wage where they can have access to quality health care, that’s showing them…when they can benefit, and they see the benefit, you can bring people along.’ In other words, mayors can speak with assurance about the new paradigm because they are already making it visible.

Of course, we need action on a green recovery from all levels of government and institutions, and mayors have been clear about what is needed: green stimulus packages and commitment to an equitable and inclusive recovery, investment in cities and in clean energy, protection for mass transit, and an end to investment in fossil fuels. But this isn’t just a case of cities picking up the slack from national governments. Far from it — they are the natural spaces for cultural and economic shifts to begin. Cities have long been centres of disruption; as the African urbanist Edgar Pieterse puts it, they are: ‘the cosmopolitan kitchens where cross-pollination and experimentation generate innovation and new cultural norms.’ If the transformation to an equitable and green economy is going to start anywhere, it will be in cities.

We can see this ambitious and progressive energy at work in the green recovery plans of C40 cities. Hong Kong has launched its Green Employment Scheme to create more than 1,000 jobs in environmental protection and a programme to fund IT solutions for developing remote business; Rotterdam is investing in the circular economy and working with its port to become a hydrogen-economy hub. Medellin will create 20,000 jobs in digital industries and a new metro line with the potential to generate thousands of new jobs. It is also investing in training for 25,000 people in science, technology and innovation, with an emphasis on women, youth and older people. Addis Ababa’s Light Rail Transit Project, not only gives the city a chance to avoid a traffic congested future, but has so far created over 5,000 jobs and will save 1.8 million tCo2e by 2030.

Cities are clear about the future they want and they are already showing what is possible. In 2020 we can build something different and better. The work has already begun.