Fire truck at the Bonn fire department

How COVID-19 is affecting the work of local government sustainability officers

Nontsundu Ndonga in uMhlathuze, South Africa, is now requiring all applications to the planning department to be completed online to eliminate the need for in-person consultations.

Chris Castro in Orlando, Florida, USA, has had to postpone all of the city’s in-person Earth Day activities.

Lotte Suveri, in Turku, Finland, has put all their social media campaigns about climate change on hold so that the city’s communications team can focus on answering pressing questions on hygiene and online learning options.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported at the end of 2019, every sector of society around the world has been affected. Sustainability departments are no exception. ICLEI’s global network of local and regional governments committed to sustainability are reporting drastic changes to how they work, what they are working on, and how they foresee their projects moving forward.

When local must go digital

One of the biggest advantages that local governments have in implementing sustainable development is that they are the closest level of government to the people they are serving. But what happens when that closeness must be interrupted for public health concerns?

“We are looking for new options to re-shape our outreach in the SDG-context. The outreach was entirely based on physical events, often addressing a very general public and getting it to where people were. And now [we] have to find ways to reach out to bigger audiences in the digital world,” said Susanne Nolden, who works in the department of International Affairs and Global Sustainability in Bonn, Germany.

“My biggest challenge is of course shifting from face-to-face to digital very abruptly, because I work a lot in conferences, circles, meetings and networks. Most conferences, meetings and workshops have been canceled now and are looking desperately for options to continue the work in another way. How can we still proceed in our agendas, and stay connected with other key players interactively? That is our main question,” said Nolden.

Some of the challenges are quite practical in nature. For Nontsundu Ndonga, Deputy Municipal Manager for City Development and Sustainability in the city of uMhlathuze, South Africa, the real challenge is how to stop contact between residents and city administration.

“If there is face-to-face interaction that needs to happen, we will consider case-by-case requirements and can arrange for that. In the property valuation office, which is also part of the department, we have had to place a box at the security desk, where customers can leave their objections” in order to reduce more contact within the department, she said. Since the national 21-day lockdown that was announced by South Africa’s President on March 23, this too will need to change.

Fears around a loss of momentum for sustainability projects

The severity of the global crisis means that sustainability officers are wrestling with the increasingly clear picture that projects they have been working so hard to advance may be delayed, reduced in scope or even canceled completely.

“The biggest challenge we’re facing is maintaining the momentum of our various projects with other partners,” said Chris Castro, Director of Sustainability and Resilience, City of Orlando, FL.

“We have a dozen major policies and programs in development, such as contracts for 100+ electric vehicle charging stations, over 1.5 MW of rooftop solar projects, a new solar co-op, electric vehicle bus deployments, energy efficiency retrofits of public buildings, and more. With all this uncertainty, I worry how much of it will stay on time,” said Castro.

Sustainability directors are seeing city resources being redeployed to address the crisis. In Oberlin, Ohio, in the US, the city administration for the town of 8000 is totally absorbed with the work of responding to the crisis.

Linda Arbogast, Sustainability Coordinator, City of Oberlin, OH, is fully onboard with the emergency response, but also fears for the work that was advancing to address the city’s resilience for the future. “My fire chief was working with me on the adaptation work. He is now consumed with the city’s response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Arbogast.

And now sustainability officers must anticipate how to slowly and carefully bring the attention back to the urgent environmental crisis at some point. But when?

Risto Veivo, who leads the climate team for the city of Turku, Finland, said, “The city must urgently respond to the epidemic both in terms of prevention of infection and providing care for those impacted. In my personal role and in the work of our Climate Team, the biggest change in daily work has been the dramatic shift of agendas and public attention.”

Tiffany Wise-West, Sustainability and Climate Action Coordinator, for the City of Santa Cruz, California worries about project timelines that have been pushed out and how grant funders will respond to delays.

She said she is taking comfort in the fact that progress on projects that can be done remotely continues, including “project grant proposals and preparing our climate action task force for our upcoming climate and energy action plan process.”

Sebastian Schlecht, who manages Green City Strategy for the city of Essen, Germany, acknowledged that the urgent situation has required a new level of invention and problem solving. “The urgency of the situation forces a creative solution that requires a great deal of effort from employees, while they are already heavily burdened with personal worries and private obligations,” he said.

But their commitment shows what is possible in society. “This is altogether an impressive demonstration of what it means to be a resilient city and a resilient society,” he said.

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