Expert’s Pick: An economic doughnut for cities post-COVID-19

The city of Amsterdam has adopted a doughnut. An economic doughnut.

The Guardian recently reported that the city is reshaping its economic model post-COVID-19, to meet residents’ needs while centring on sustainability objectives. To shape the city’s recovery plan, officials have drawn on the doughnut theory of Kate Raworth, an economist from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

The inner ring of the doughnut draws on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and represents the minimum things we need to lead a good life –clean water, shelter, gender equality. The outer ring of the doughnut defines the ecological limits we must respect to avoid damaging climate change, such as ocean acidification and ozone depletion. The ‘dough’, therefore, represents the resources we can use

Lea Ranalder, REN21’s expert on energy in cities, explains how COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of fundamental needs. For example, a roof over our heads, access to food, water, health care and the ability to communicate. “It is essential that we refocus policy making on meeting the needs of all” She explains. “The pandemic has shown the weaknesses of many systems that collectively have compromised basic human needs and environmental sustainability.”

Video of Maryke Van Staden, from our member organisation, ICLEI discuss why are cities a logical entry point for reaching 100% renewables.

Cities have their own challenges, but planetary boundaries are universal

The concept of the doughnut for economic recovery can inspire all cities. However, what it means in terms of actual change will vary. “Different cities have their own challenges and resources, circumstances and realities,” reflects Lea, “but the concept of providing for all, within environmental limits, is global.”

It’s not just Amsterdam that’s making changes. Many cities are coping with the pandemic by giving over road space to walking and cycle lanes, including Paris, Milan and Berlin. Following World Health Organisation guidelines for safe transport during the pandemic, larger and more extensive cycleways allow key workers to commute and residents to exercise, while maintaining social distancing and minimising use of public transport. However, cycleways are also an important step to more equitable, sustainable cities, supporting reduced emissions and better air quality. In the long run, this will lead to healthier air and healthier people.

Is this the start of large-scale, lasting change?

Some cities, including Milan and Amsterdam, are remodeling permanently. But when this crisis is over, will we see large-scale, lasting change? “Yes, a long-term change is possible” Lea responds. “In the Renewables in Cities 2019 Global Status Report, we saw that cities have shown leadership for more sustainable energy systems” Lea explains. “By leading the way with what they are doing locally, they can affect national government policy and global systems. In this case, Amsterdam is acting an example, showcasing a specific pathway for how the world can look post COVID-19”.

Cities can influence energy policy
Cities can advance renewables locally, but can also act as role models nationally and internationally. Source: Renewables in Cities Global Status Report


“This unusual situation, whilst being a crisis, can only be used as a trial period. What we are seeing is a great first step to more sustainable and healthier cities, with more walking, cycling, more public transport and the opportunity to expand the use of renewables. The world is not going to magically go back to the way things were.  Recovery is going to be slow and is an opportunity to implement lasting change for the better.”

Work has begun on the next Renewables in Cities Global Status Report, due for launch early 2021. Creating the report is a collaborative effort, find out how you can contribute here