Sustainable investing and innovation for healthier cities

COVID-19 has swept through over 180 countries like a hurricane and occupied the minds of the world’s population and governments, forcing decision makers to respond to the immediate impacts. There is no doubt that the crisis is about to change various aspects of our lives and the way we do business. This crisis has proven to be global, emphasizing how interrelated the world has become. This crisis has also proven to be destructive, with people losing jobs and livelihoods being destroyed.

Although climate change is not an epidemic, it also has wide-reaching negative effects, unfortunately even more of a long lasting nature. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to climate change and diseases as ‘problems without passports’ that cannot be stopped at the border, while Georg Kell in his recent Forbes article1 has well highlighted how much climate change is already under way, building up its destructive potential around the globe. COVID-19 is demonstrating similar patterns to climate change thus and the human activities that are in lockdown now are at risk in the long run.

The widespread business shutdown due to COVID-19 has resulted in clear skies in cities all around the world. But why do we need a major health crisis to clean the air in ourcities? Should not governments be strongly pushing alternative mobility concepts that can directly improve public health once the lockdowns are lifted?

The scientific community agrees that the more people breathe polluted air, the more they are prone to respiratory infections. Additionally, literature focusing on SARS and COVID-192 correlates air pollution to the speed of spread of the epidemic, as pollution acts as virus carrier, as well as the severity of the disease. According to Harvard research3, a minor increase in pollution, even just by +1 microgram of PM2.5, increases COVID-19 mortality by 15%. Research4 also shows that almost 80% of deaths across four countries – Italy, Spain, France and Germany – were in some of the most polluted regions in Europe.

Until COVID-19, the western world seemed to consider climate change as something that so far affected only faraway places such as the North Pole or Amazonia. Appeals about the future of the next generations or “2050 scenarios” have not been deeply effective in mobilising decision makers and for many people that are just trying to get through their day, not only in emerging markets, “carbon emissions” is a vague term that has no relevance to their day-to-day existence.

This crisis is showing instead how sensitive the world becomes to the public health, when the risk is tangible. Can the risk from carbon emissions become more tangible, when we recognize that air pollution increases the number of deaths, inside and outside the epidemic frame? The lockdowns are clearly reducing the CO2 and NO2 emissions in the short term, however these short term improvements should not imply that decisions on clear air zones in our cities can be postponed until 2021.

We should keep in mind that the COVID-19 crisis is going to come in waves and that after SARS and COVID-19 the history could repeat. It is obvious that an exposure to dirty air and its dispersion could be reduced with the cleaner vehicles, alternative ‘Ville Du Quart D’Heure’ concepts5 and zero-emissions zones. These measures are long term in nature and have the dual effect of reducing pollution and improving public health outcomes.

COVID-19 has imposed an unprecedented halt of business activities that are related to movement of people and goods. From the recent market business reactions, two directions can be observed: adaptation to the post COVID world and ‘keep going as before’. Nine multinational companies responded to attempts by some auto industry lobbyists to seek delays to the EU regulations in respect to CO2 targets for cars, vans and trucks. The EU has rejected the appeal of the lobbyists. The plastic industry has called to lift an EU wide ban on some single use plastic items because of health and hygiene concerns raised during the COVID-19 outbreak. Companies, however, should not be using the COVID-19 emergency to interfere with legislation banning the use of single use plastic bags or changing emission targets. They should rather take the opportunity to innovate and rethink the production value chains, including a return to “insourcing” and “onshoring”, even when they result in increased costs in the short term.

This is the right moment for businesses to pose these questions, review their business models, adapt and emerge with a new wave of innovation to become more resilient and sustainable. European companies have the potential to recover stronger from this crisis and come up with decarbonisation and resource efficiency strategies. An excellent example already entering the market is the production of electric buses using composite material from PET bottles for the bus body. Echoing Kristalina Georgieva from the International Monetary Fund, there should be no trap of short term thinking, no reshuffle of priorities in addressing economic fallout today at the risk of weakening our fight against climate change.

The emergency we are living in will go through various phases, but overall will continue for some time, with long lasting impacts on public health. This is the right time to look at existing problems through new lenses, the moment to turn the fight against climate change in a true opportunity for healthier cities, to mobilize sustainable investments as a driving force of the recovery to come.  The policy makers are committed to ensure the necessary stimulus for a ‘green renaissance’ of the EU economy, this should go hand in hand with a push from companies for corporate innovation, aiming for sustainable and locally responsive business.

The European Energy Efficiency Fund is co-investing with a Lithuanian company to provide leasing services of electric buses to the cities. They are locally produced, efficiently and intelligently designed using heat pumps to cool the lithium–titanium batteries and transfer the heat to the bus cabin. Efforts to combat air pollution include indeed sustainable mobility in the first instance, together with an increased use of renewable energy as well as improved energy efficiency in buildings. Opportunities are at hand and should come further from the cutting-edge applications, such as in the areas of waste management and plastic re-usage. They will likely drive a significant job creation already in the near term, whilst creating an overall impact that is wide reaching and long lasting.

1 “Four lessons we should learn from the pandemic”, Georg Kell, 11 April 2020

2 Among others: “Relation between pollution from particulate matter and virus spread in the population”, Italian Society of Environmental Medicine, University of Bologna, University of Bari March 2020; “Interaction between air pollution and respiratory viruses: time-series study of daily mortality and hospital admissions in Hong Kong”. Res Rep Health Eff Inst. 2010; “Association of daily mortality with ambient air pollution, and effect modification by extremely high temperature in Wuhan, China” Res Rep Health Eff Inst. 2010

3 “Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States”, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, April 2020

4 “Assessing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as a contributing factor to coronavirus (COVID-19) fatality” Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, April 2020

5 One of the main concepts behind the new urban plan of the City of Paris. It aims to transform the metropolis in a “city of proximity” where any main service is 15 minutes far, on a walking distance or by bike.

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