Strategies for a Green COVID Recovery

At the close of 2019, Sonoma County was on a path towards addressing and adapting to the climate emergency guided by the RCPA’s strategic plan. Unfortunately, 2020 has brought along an additional challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. This health crisis has harmed local economies and communities and has tested the resiliency of the nation. The pandemic has also further highlighted the gaps and inequities that exist in the U.S. Now we are faced with the challenge of building back stronger and more resiliently while addressing equity issues and the urgent effects of climate change.

Incorporating programs and initiatives that boost the economy while also addressing issues facing the environment will allow for the world’s growth to be strong and resilient. A recent survey from IPsos MORI showed that “65% of respondents globally support a green recovery and consider it important that government actions prioritize climate change;” and these statistics have been reflected in the various green recovery proposals from countries throughout the world[1]. Strategies for how to incorporate these actions into COVID recovery are from across all sectors: transportation, buildings, finance and more.

Renewable Energy Jobs (Energy and Electricity)

The most frequently mentioned recommendation is clean and renewable energy investment. Engaging in this transition during recovery from COVID-19 will benefit the local economy and health of communities. According to IEEFA, clean energy transition could add 100 trillion to the GDP between now and 2050. The transition would also return $3-8 on every dollar invested[2]. By investing $12 billion to 16 billion annually through 2030 in the nation’s electric grid infrastructure, it could stimulate $30 billion to $40 billion in annual economic activity and create 150,000 to 200,000 full-time jobs each year (for example, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act supported 900,000 clean energy jobs)[3]. The benefit of investing in renewable energy is its ability to indirectly spur growth in other sectors.

Focusing on Energy and Electricity during this recovery period will also be beneficial for the consumer. Many non-essential workers have spent this time working from home – often increasing the amount of electricity used in their residence. Expanding retrofitting and energy upgrade programs will save consumers money during a time of financial strain.

The fossil fuel industry is experiencing a cut in demand, a reduction in prices and a great loss in jobs. These factors make it an opportune time to shift the reliance on fossil fuel towards renewables. This facilitation will not only contribute to the GHG emission goals needed to address climate change, but will also create more jobs. According to the World Resources Institute, every $1 million in spending creates approximately 8 full-time jobs in energy efficiency and renewables – which is almost three times the number of jobs created through fossil fuel investment[4].

Spotlight Example: The U.S. Green Energy Money $aver was recently launched in Hawaii and is an on-bill financing program that caters specifically to renters. The program creates jobs while lowering the energy cost burden low-income residents face by providing low-cost loans for energy upgrades and retrofits.

In the Bay Area, the RCPA is helping to launch Water Upgrades $ave – a program to make water conservation easy with an inclusive financing on‐bill offer that eligible utility customers accept and trust.

Cleaner Air and Support for Transit (Land-based Transportation Mobility)

As shelter-at-home orders were put into place throughout the world, transportation and the pollution it creates was significantly reduced. This resulted in “smog-less” streets and cleaner air to breathe. Looking toward a future of green recovery, it is necessary to incorporate sustainable transportation and mobility into plans and actions in order to maintain this cleaner air. By focusing on sustainable transportation and mobility, recovery can also address the need for expanded access to healthcare by building a bridge between medical attention and hard to reach places.

Additionally, with public health resiliency being a major focus of recovery, reduced pollution will be an added benefit. Studies show $1 billion US dollars invested in public transportation has the ability to create almost 50,000 jobs and returns $5 billion US dollars in economic activity. Attention on the transportation sector is especially necessary as the pandemic has significantly reduced public transportation ridership by about 60-70%, reports estimate[5]. Therefore, these sectors need additional care and focus in order to recover. Investment in more sustainable and connected transportation systems has the ability to reduce US CO2 emissions by about 7 million tons per year[6].

Spotlight Example: There are several programs that are offering support for investing in electric vehicle fleets and buses: Clean Cities Program, Clean School Buses Program, DOT’s low and no emission vehicle program. By using an electric bus, a transit operator could save $300,000 in fuel and maintenance over its lifetime.

Industry and Business

The pandemic has had a significant effect on the local economy by interrupting or reducing business transactions and operations. It is necessary to support local businesses and facilitate a stronger and more resilient economy. This is a valuable time to begin to “make a down payment on a regenerative economy while preventing future crises”[7]

US economic data from the 2nd Quarter of 2020 showed that gross domestic product fell 9.5% and was “the most devastating three-month collapse on record, which wiped away nearly five years of growth.” Getting to a healthy economy will likely require innovation from areas such as telework, clean tech and government aid[8].

Spotlight Example: A local program, Conservation Corps North Bay, offers opportunities for individuals to receive their high-school diploma while receiving a paycheck and being trained for a career in conservation work.

Reduced Methane and Healthier Soil (Land Use/ Environmental Protection)

While many of the recommended recovery strategies circle around sectors that will indirectly support environment saving processes, focusing directly on environmental protection is also a viable strategy for green recovery. Through actions that protect the environment and biodiversity, communities can build resilience to natural disasters and health pandemics while also alleviating poverty.

Spotlight Example: Reforestation has surprising benefits, in addition to taking CO2 out of the air. A federal investment of $4-4.5 billion in reforestation could create more than 150,000 jobs and $6-12 billion per year in economic activities.

Focusing our Investments Can Multiply the Benefits (Strategies and Examples)

The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) conducted a recent survey to determine the viability of each possible strategy. Each was ranked based on potential climate impact, the multiplier effect and the speed at which the effects would be experienced. SSEE designated five strategies that stand out with great potential for addressing climate change while also stimulating the economy:

    • Clean physical infrastructure investment in the form of renewable energy assets, storage (including hydrogen), grid modernization and CCS technology
    • Building efficiency spending for renovations and retrofits including improved insulation, heating, and domestic energy storage systems
    • Investment in education and training to address immediate unemployment from COVID-19 and structural shifts from decarbonisation
    • Natural capital investment for ecosystem resilience and regeneration including restoration of carbon-rich habitats and climate-friendly agriculture
    • Clean research and development spending

But, how can we do this equitably?

The Greenlining Institute (a policy, research, organizing, and leadership institute), has created a guiding document for ensuring that COVID recovery initiatives incorporate and prioritize equity. The organization has expressed the importance of the following guidelines for choosing and designing recovery strategies:

    1. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
    2. Partnership and Collaboration
    3. Transparency and Authenticity
    4. Accountability

A breakdown of how these guidelines could take shape within initiatives are also outlined by Greenlining. These include:

1. Easing the Immediate Burden on Communities

This includes ensuring affordable, reliable transit and clean transportation through programs like  fare free services. A suggestion for funding this is passing emergency legislation to move funds from Transit and Intercity Rail and Capital Program to the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program. Additional suggestions include expanding access to utility programs by raising the minimum income requirements for weatherization and utility upgrade programs.

2. Deliver Prosperity and Opportunity

This includes focusing on electrifying buildings, transportation and using the purchasing power of the state government to buy California-made products.

3. Build Long-term Resilience

This focuses on supporting a bond measure that would build long-term resilience into climate change and assist in recovery efforts. Greenlining recommends using the funds to protect renters, businesses and neighborhood serving facilities and programs that already have a relationship with the local community. In order to measure the success of this bond it is recommended that meaningful community engagement is being utilized and that a mapping program to identify climate-vulnerable populations is constructed and used.

4. Make Equity Real

Greenlining also clarifies that it is not just necessary to plan for equity, but rather to practice it in all rebuilding and recovery efforts. One suggestion is to develop a council devoted to incorporating equity into COVID recovery efforts which operates as communication between state and local governments and vulnerable communities. Please visit Greenlining for the complete outline of how to incorporate equity into the COVID recovery process.

COVID-19 has had an extreme effect on our communities and residents while it has also significantly impacted the local and worldwide economies. Our recovery will require patience, persistence and innovative thinking. Though this is challenging, Sonoma County has the tools to build back stronger than before. By utilizing recommended strategies and ensuring equitable principles, the future will be stronger and more resilient.


– Kiara Ryan, CivicSpark Fellow