SUED and COP26: applying lessons from COVID-19 to the climate crisis

The team behind the Sustainable Urban Economic Development Programme (SUED) programme prides itself on its capability to implement the programme within a diverse and fluid context. Much of the two years of SUED’s implementation period has been spent on supporting municipalities to navigate the realities of COVID-19 impacts, informed by the belief that sustainable urbanisation can help municipalities to work with their citizens to mitigate against future socio-economic shocks.

As it continues to implement its activities within the COVID-19 context, the programme is increasingly aware of the scale at which globally disrupting issues cuts across borders and can impact people from all walks of life. This blog highlights how, by better understanding how COVID-19 impacts the global economy and on a micro-scale in Kenya, SUED can better support disaster preparedness of municipalities and apply the pandemic lessons to mitigate the negative impact of potential future climate adverse events.

SUED is funded by the UK Government and managed by Tetra Tech International Development. Atkins Global is Tetra Tech’s partner in the development of the urban economic plans.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in terms of impact and reach. It has fundamentally changed lives in the short term and has challenged the way we perceive our future. Health, food security systems, economic livelihoods and social cohesion have been tested across the globe. It has exposed critical missing links in how cities, economies and the communities they serve are planned. Although the impacts from COVID-19 and climate change play out on very different timescales, many of these structural weaknesses such as the lack of disaster response mechanisms are the same as the underlying vulnerabilities to climate change.

The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating in Kenya. The pandemic has hit the most vulnerable the hardest, particularly in densely populated informal settlements and slums, as well as other people lacking access to adequate housing and basic services. The informal economy – which employs the majority of Kenyans1 – has been drastically affected by the lockdowns and curfews introduced to curb the transmission of the virus. According to the 2020 Economic Survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), some 83% of employment in Kenya is in the informal sector2. It is a diverse and burgeoning sector generating significant income and ranging in cover from transportation to roadside sellers, small scale restaurants and other ventures. It is also a sector characterised by low skills, lacking formal structure and dominated by young people and women.

The adjacent typology indicates the varying levels of vulnerability within the sector, based on employment and consumption patterns across Africa . It is also a representation of the sector in Kenya and indicates the ability of households and low wage earners to cope financially with the disruption from COVID-19 restrictions. Under normal circumstances the sector is severely constrained by lack of access to finance for development, leaving it even more vulnerable to the economic shocks and impacts that could come from a major climate disaster.

COVID-19 restrictions meant that service industry employees lacked the option to work from home, as their roles and responsibilities are carried out in-person, and unable to limit their exposure to the virus. Some have seen their pay cut, and some lost their livelihoods all together and have had to rely on savings. The most vulnerable resorted to reducing food consumption and effectively fell into poverty. Even within the formal sector, there has been loss of revenue due to reduced activities in sectors like industry, commerce and hospitality, with the effects felt throughout their supply chains and extending into the informal sector.

Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change

It is important to draw lessons from the current crisis to inform long term planning and ensure resilience is imbedded in planning. A similar disaster is likely to reoccur, and the pandemic has offered an opportunity to gain insights into preparedness for and impacts of a future fully-fledged climate change crisis. Losses go well beyond physical damage with the impacts felt both upstream and downstream, including to supply chains and livelihoods.

The pandemic has provided a parallel from which we can learn how to develop a preparedness system that will protect local economies from experiencing the full brunt of disasters, be they climate or health. As with COVID-19, climate change action needs to not only be reactive but active to prevent unmanageable crisis due to adverse climate events. Article 8 of the Paris Agreement includes the “role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage”, including targeting the most vulnerable communities and developing policies that address the root causes of this vulnerability, to build resilience against future losses and damage. Municipalities have a critical role to play in addressing these challenges.

SUED undertook an impact study focusing on Kisii Municipality to understand the effects of COVID-19 on the wider community, including vulnerable groups as well as local government administration and businesses. Below we highlight the lessons we learned that are of relevance to reducing loss and damage from climate change. What can we learn from this crisis that can change the way societies operate? What are the changes needed to support development of healthier, more resilient communities?

Urban Planning: There is a need for adaptive, urban integrated plans to ensure sustainable urban development and infrastructure – including appropriate housing for all – is planned in a way that can help minimise impact from high future and respond swiftly to unpredicted shocks. If national and municipal authorities understand the dependencies and synergies across urban sectors (infrastructure, physical planning and land use, etc.) they can support better planning for the future while maximising co-benefits for the community. The best plans for this will be well-thought-out and incorporate cross cutting aspects such as climate change risks and their causes and effects, while also creating links to help prioritise adaptive actions.

Capacity Building: Strengthening preparedness and emergency response capacity is critical for withstanding emergency situations. This means better preparedness in terms of financing, service delivery and business continuity including budgeting for future crises, emergency operations centres, capacity building, drills, and human resource redeployment plans. Ensuring city officials are empowered with knowledge to plan effectively and proactively will allow them to better respond to crises that include future climatic shocks. It will also be important to make sure that communication to the community is clear and public awareness campaign is consistently available to all in a format and language understandable to all.

Green Cities: Improving the environmental performance of cities through low carbon and environmentally sensitive actions not only helps adapt to climate change risks but has clear health co-benefits for society. Redefining green spaces and the way city centres are designed for business as well as traffic management has been a critical short-term response to the current pandemic, but has valuable long-term planning benefits.

Social Inclusion: It has been clear that the most severely affected by the pandemic in Kenya have been vulnerable groups – people already at risk and living in poverty. These same groups are also those likely to be disproportionately impacted by climate change. Understanding who these vulnerable groups are and prioritising policies to confront spatial, social and economic exclusion will both help support overall growth and ensure safeguards are in place in the face of another shock. Targeting women and girls in all efforts remains a key aspect. It will be vital to apply intentional gender lenses to the design of social assistance programmes and economic stimulus programmes to achieve greater opportunities, social protection and meaningful impact.

Economic Growth and Recovery: To ensure a resilient economy, there is need to consider and analyse key sector supply chains and their critical links, in order to protect livelihoods from external shocks and climate change impacts. These include agriculture and manufacturing as well as trade support development planning. The pandemic has clearly indicated the need to focus on local inputs to ensure food security and, at the same time, safeguard export-oriented products to maintain revenue generation. There is also a need to understand the importance of the informal sector – known as Jua-Kali – as a contributor to the economy and its vulnerability, in terms of lack of financial security particularly in economic downturns. Improving market access and introducing marketing efficiency through adoption of innovative processes that connect buyers and sellers could support access to finance when needed. This may include adoption of technology to promote marketing and information sharing, formalising product delivery services that can support continuation of activities but can also work as collateral for financial support.

Smart tools: Adoption of smart technology improves provision and efficiencies. Information technology (IT) systems can support information sharing and communication and has been critical to this pandemic – from M-Pesa payments to virtual meetings and maintaining market access. Digital services have helped to mitigate some of the effects of the pandemic, with farmers and traders selling produce through social media and e-commerce platforms. Improved access to market information, and more direct connections between farmers and buyers would also strengthen livelihoods in the face of climate impacts, and digital extension services could help create climate-resilient supply chains.

Many of the lessons that national and municipal authorities in Kenya have learned from the COVID-19 response, can be applied to preparation for climate related disasters, allowing the authorities to test their systems and assess their preparedness. By applying the lessons gleaned from the study, municipalities are able to put in place measures that better protect them against future climatic shocks and enable them to plan successful responses that protect everyone. The lessons learned during the pandemic must be applied to climate action.