Sander Chan portret
Sander Chan portret

Did the climate ambitions of cities remain intact during the COVID-19 pandemic?

University lecturer Sander Chan knows that climate ambitions of governments often don't hold up, especially not in times of crisis. New research shows that cities are often much more ambitious than their national governments. "That gives hope."

'Who is concerned about climate and worried?", tweeted political scientist Sander Chan during the first lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic. More than sixty people responded. At the time, the researcher and associate professor of international environmental politics could not have imagined what his action would lead to four years later. What started as a chat session, 'just to share our concerns with each other', ended in an international collaboration, special friendships, culminating in a publication in Nature Cities, together with Dr Tanya O'Garra (Imperial College of London) and other colleagues.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chan saw governments suddenly capable of quick and decisive action. What if they used that forward-thinking approach in the climate field too? He wondered if the pandemic might offer an opportunity for the climate. Besides the effectiveness of governments, there were more bright spots. In Delhi, usually covered under a thick grey smog blanket, the air suddenly cleared. Not only there, but air quality improved worldwide. Together with fellow researchers, Chan examined what happened to cities' climate ambitions during the pandemic.

And what did you find? 

'We studied the climate plans of nearly 800 cities around the world: in Europe, America, but also in Africa and Southeast Asia, for example. We discovered that the climate pledges of 80% of the cities held up or were even strengthened. More than two in five cities even increased their climate ambitions. So climate policies of cities proved quite resilient to this crisis. An important finding because the number of crises is piling up in recent years, think of the energy crisis.'

Did you notice any striking differences between places? 

"It was striking that cities in Africa and parts of Asia are often more ambitious than those in Europe or America, despite their worse financial situation. This is probably because they feel the impact of climate change much more strongly than we do. If it rains for a few days in our region, it is not a disaster. But if it happens in a city like Manila in a developing country, there are casualties. Or look at China, certainly not known to us for its climate measures. Yet the country does quite a lot. I lived in Beijing for five years, from 2009 to 2013. Fine dust and smog plagued the city. On some days, I could barely breathe. Very worrying. Those extreme health effects have driven a series of environmental and climate measures, such as the closure of coal-fired power plants. So you see: health measures can also be climate measures and vice versa. When the knife cuts on several sides, it creates a huge push.'

Can cities help each other to achieve more together?

'Definitely. This is already happening too. Cities exchange knowledge and experiences in various international climate networks, such as C40: a global network of nearly 100 mayors of cities around the world. Our research shows that cities that are members of such a network often perform better in terms of climate action. And cities from the global north can also learn from the south. In Europe, we think we are safe and progressive, while cities in developing countries are often much more aware and proactive when it comes to climate action. At the same time, it’s unfair that in developing countries where the impact is greatest, cities have the least clout. European cities in particular should step up their game.'

Text: Inge Mutsaers


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Dr M. Chan (Sander)
Sustainability, Politics