In response to COVID-19, cities focus on nature and innovation to ensure a green recovery

“We are now facing two global crises, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Post-COVID-19 recovery should not mark the return to a conventional society, but rather, the shift to a more sustainable and resilient society by redesigning our socio-economic system.”

This was the opening statement from H.E. Koizumi Shinjiro, the Minister of Environment of Japan at the Driving the Green Recovery and Redesign Daring Cities session. Since he was appointed the Minister of Environment last year, the number of local governments in Japan that have committed to achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050 “has surged to 163 from just four” Koizumi pointed out.

Kobie Brand, Regional Director of ICLEI Africa and Deputy Secretary General of ICLEI made the case for transformative and holistic solutions at all levels of government. “It is not just about rebuilding or building back better or greener, it is about a complete fundamental paradigm shift” she said, referring to Redesign 2020, a platform that is being managed by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES).

Professor Takeuchi Kazuhiko, Chair of the Central Environmental Council for the Government of Japan and President of Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) laid out the triple R – Response, Recovery, Redesign – framework that IGES is developing and why it is so important for a green and equitable recovery. “COVID-19 has deepened social inequality. Poor or marginalized parts of society are more likely to suffer from COVID [and] redesign is critical during the response and recovery” he said. 

Another theme that dominated throughout the discussion on a green recovery was in fact the critical importance of nature in urban spaces. Kazuhiko stated that “there is an urgent need to build a sustainable relationship between natural ecosystems and human beings.”

David Dodman, Director of Human Settlements at the International Institute for Environment and  Development and author of 6th Assessment Synthesis Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change also brought nature to the forefront. 

“As we’ve been going through the writing of IPCC 6 Assessment we have built a much stronger evidence base in terms of what nature-based solutions can offer in urban areas” Dodman said. He also praised the leadership of cities at this challenging time, saying that “it’s important to have daring cities that are willing to learn from different groups and to break across silos to treat issues in an integrated way and to plan for the future in ways that disrupt some of the old certainties.”

Emilia Saíz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) also praised city responses to this global crisis and urged local governments to not lose the value of closeness with their residents. “We need to invite cities to be daring and caring,” she said. The global pandemic has helped us prioritize in a different manner… it has shown us that what we consider basic or indispensable might need to be rethought or redefined.”

Japanese cities are not alone in their commitment to realize a zero carbon society, even in the face of the overlapping crises of the global pandemic and climate change.

Throughout the session, local leaders showcased that in the face of COVID-19 pandemic, they are not losing sight of the climate emergency. Instead, they are taking advantage of this extraordinary moment in history to reaffirm their commitment to a sustainable future and focus on building back better.

Hayashi Fumiko, Mayor of Yokohama, Japan shared how her city is focusing on decarbonization and circular economy to achieve their target of zero carbon emissions by 2050. She also offered a call to action for all leaders saying “we must protect the rights of our citizens and hand down this beautiful planet to future generations. We must give it our all and keep moving further together.” 

Her message of environmentalism was echoed by Mohamed Sefiani, Mayor of Chefchaouen, Morocco. “We need to rethink how we manage our territories and how our city systems need to evolve with this pandemic… and transform the way we interact with nature” he said. “The pandemic has shown us that our models of development are far from perfect. We must carry out a true ecological transition that leaves no one and no place behind.”

Makati Mayor Abigail Binay from the Philippines also spoke of her city’s emphasis on promoting urban greening and the preservation of green spaces through initiatives such as tree planting. But she also emphasized the need for innovation. “Besides green initiatives, Makati uses the power of technology to create COVID-19 related programs for the benefit of our makatizens. In these challenging times, adaptive leadership is essential and we should employ digital and green technology to reduce the negative impacts of global warming and the greenhouse effect.” 

This sentiment was echoed by Mahadi Che Ngah, Mayor of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: “We must innovate in order to mitigate the contagion that is COVID-19. Innovation and technological advancements must be the new norm.”

Tunc Soyer, Mayor of Izmir Metropolitan Government, Turkey closed out the session with an impactful observation on biological diversity. “In Izmir, we are so lucky to have a beautiful nature and high biodiversity ecosystem… Izmir is home to 13 percent of the world’s flamingo population. In the electoral campaign, I promised not to be the Mayor of humans but all living creatures of the city including the flamingo. I keep this promise. We are firmly committed to make Izmir a model city for living in harmony with nature” he concluded.

In response to the passion and commitment of all of these local leaders, Saíz closed the session on an optimistic note. “If you have leaders who are convinced that transformation is possible no matter the cost or the challenge”, she said “that gives me hope.” 

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