Adriana Lobo
Executive Director
WRI México
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COVID-19 May Have a Vaccine, but Climate Change Does Not

By Alessa Flores | Wed, 07/01/2020 - 18:38

Q: What is the essence of the Sustainable Revolution and what makes it a revolution?

A: It is called a Sustainable Revolution for two reasons. The first is that a revolution is necessary to achieve change because incremental changes are not enough, and the second comes from a reflection by Jeremy Rifkin that we are in a derivative revolution of a great technological change in the energy sector that has resulted in a substantial change in society. For example, when the railroad arrived, cities were united through this new technology and their daily dynamics changed. WRI Mexico has created a series of webinars aimed at engaging in discussing sustainability regarding cities, mobility, forests, energy and financing schemes. Subsequently, WRI Mexico aims to generate a series of policy recommendations to help international and local actors transform their social reality in a sustainable way.

Q: How can the Sustainable Revolution contribute to a post-pandemic recovery that leads to a just, equitable and environmentally friendly society that is more resilient to disasters and diseases?

A: The path to sustainability must follow a holistic concept that encompasses social, environmental and economic sustainability. Sustainability cannot exist unless all three elements are integrated. For this reason, the COVID-19 pandemic became a magnifying glass on the interdependence of the economic, social and environmental systems that prevail in our society. Today, we can see how the problems suffered by human beings derive from a chain of consequences due to their bad relationship with the environment. For example, an increase in temperature triggers a loss of species that alters the biodiversity cycle. On the other hand, the pandemic has also highlighted social issues such as racism and racial inequality experienced in the US. It is evident that society needs a change and must come to more sustainable ways of living and of living together. The model drawn for humanity has been based on high consumption, but also on unequal consumption, where small groups have the privilege of consuming a great deal, while other social groups cannot consume in the same way. This means a great part of the consumption capacity is concentrated amongst a small part of the world population, contributing to the perpetuation of inequalities.

If we are going to change as a society, we have to ask ourselves how we want to change and how we can make this world a better place. For instance, Alicia Barcena of ECLAC says that Latin America and Mexico are, for the first time, experiencing a profound crisis derived from the COVID-19 pandemic that surpasses the 1929 crisis and ensuing Great Depression. For that reason, in Mexico and the region, we can no longer talk about opportunities but about the need for change. 

The other pillar of change lies in working together and fostering shared regional leadership. This initiative was initially proposed by WRI Mexico with the cooperation of WWF, GIZ, IDB, ECLAC, the British Embassy of Mexico and many more. Together, we have contributed to generating the plans, the vision and the initiatives to help transform the world.

Q: What are some of the changes that you propose for cities in terms of sustainability?

A: First of all, we talk about a green impetus for sustainability through the use of clean energy, but it is also evident that a transformation is required in which all colors participate and play a role. A purple impetus, for example, with the participation of women and other social actors would make the sustainable revolution a multicolored transformation. In addition, cities must think from the point of view of energy efficiency. For example, it has been shown that investment in clean energy generates greater employment intensity per dollar invested in hydrocarbon-based energy. 

On the other hand, one of the city's greatest considerations is how to measure inequality and how mobility and infrastructure can alleviate this type of social problem. Infrastructure in Mexico and Latin America reveal those social spaces with the greatest inequality and the greatest concentration of wealth. To measure this, WRI Mexico and other actors have developed indicators of inequality of access to opportunities based on infrastructure, such as the distance to access hospitals, schools and other establishments. Using these indicators, cities and their governments can direct investment to infrastructure that helps improve wellbeing. For example, investing in areas with little or no water, sanitation and energy infrastructure is investing for the good of the entire city because reducing inequalities can help improve the quality of life for all people and the city itself.

Q: What makes mobility a key factor for sustainability?

A: The most sustainable cities are those that focus their dynamics on pedestrians. Some cities have generated alternatives for those spaces that require more complicated mobility over longer distances. For example, when I went to Washington, I used the JUMP assisted bicycle that allowed me to move around the city without any complications and in a non-polluting way. These options can be great alternatives, even for cities like São Paulo, which is where I come from and which has many hills. 

I believe that cities that have consistently and intelligently invested in bikeways have generated sustainable mobility options. In a talk I had with a Brazilian mayor, he told me that he placed a bike path near the beach, but it was only used for tourism. Why did this happen? Why was it not used for urban mobility? Because the cycling infrastructure was not created using the logic of urban connection or to create a real cycling network. Governors need to think about clean and resilient means of transport, and those cities that invest in these options generate great environmental, economic, social and even health benefits. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, large cities such as Mexico City, Bogota, Milan and others are contributing to generating provisional bicycle lanes to avoid congestion on public transport. This reveals that change is possible and hopefully, these changes will remain after the pandemic.

Q: What do you hope to contribute in the week of dialogue around forests, energy and financing?

A: During Forest Week, we will talk about the relationship between humankind and the environment, and how this balance is key to human life and more specifically food security. We have seen that when this balance is affected and people cannot harvest their production due to changes in the climate or a decrease in water supply, they face a variety of problems, including malnutrition. When you consider that many crops are for self-subsistence in Mexico, and in other parts of the world, it becomes an even more important social matter. Thus, different communities will speak during this dialogue, and discuss their experiences. That leads us to reflect on interdependence, where we depend on their production and they depend on our consumption. We should no longer ask ourselves as a society whether or not it is important to have a healthier relationship with our environment but rather, how can we improve this relationship? It is already a fact that healthier interdependent relationships should be created between ourselves and nature. 

On Energy Week, WRI Mexico believes the COVID-19 pandemic will have a vaccine, but climate change does not. We need a long-term cure for climate change and the energy sector is an essential part of that. 

Finally, during our last week we will discuss financing solutions so that governments, cities and companies can generate schemes to make the Sustainable Revolution a reality. Collaboration will be key to achieving this and we hope to generate a second stage after the dialogue to consolidate ideas on how to transform society into more sustainable ways of life.

Q: What is the question that nobody has asked you and that you think should be the focus of attention on issues related to sustainability?

A: I am very surprised by the way in which social problems have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they have become so visible in such a short period of time. In these times of social isolation and being at home, domestic and gender violence has increased, and other social problems have become more visible. More importantly, people have taken to the streets to protest against social injustices and have even lost their fear of contracting COVID-19. This means that the lack of opportunities outweighs the fear of becoming infected. Therefore, I think the question we should continue to ask is how, when and why do we want to continue transforming our society to be more sustainable? We need to create more sustainable, inclusive and resilient ways of life that help reduce social inequalities.

Photo by:   Adriana Lobo
Alessa Flores Alessa Flores Senior Journalist and Industry Analyst