A fighting chance for cities, and climate

7 April 2022

Have you read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

According to the IPCC report, “limiting warming to around 1.5°C requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030.”

The sheer scale of what some of the top climate scientists in the world are calling for is staggering. Harrowing might be another way to think about it.

However, a much more positive note was struck by Éric Piolle, Mayor of Grenoble, as he shared a few thoughts with fellow politicians taking part in a special side debate at the Eurocities Environment Forum.

Grenoble is adapting to climate change realities, by tackling the urban heat island effect – removing asphalt and tarmac, sharing best practices with other cities on becoming more resilient for the future, and finding ways to reconnect the city with nature.

In fact, for Grenoble, the current European Green Capital, the fight against climate change has already been something of a marathon. According to Pierre Verri, Vice-President of Grenoble Alpes Metropole, in charge of air, energy and climate, back in 2005 the metropole was the first in France to present a climate plan.

To meet its climate neutrality goals and do its part to keep the planet within a 1.5C trajectory, the city has put in place multiple strategies with milestones by 2030 in areas such as energy, waste, and mobility. This, says the Vice-President, also entails working with the wider metropolitan area and region, as enshrined in the local economic pact. “The best way to predict the future is to create it,” he said.

Completing a troika of European Green Capitals past and present, Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Lahti, and Vladimir Svet, Deputy Mayor of Tallinn were also present to share their thoughts.

“Climate change will not wait,” said Timonen who also noted the importance of gatherings of city officials in order to learn from one another, or, as he put it “to steal good ideas.”

Lahti, which recently finished its stint as European Green Capital, commissioned a report to chronicle the far-reaching impact of the city’s actions and learnings as the Green Capital.

According to the surveys, “72% of Lahti residents considered the Green Capital project to be significant or very significant,” while over 50% of respondents believe that the environment recognition has also boosted the city’s reputation.

Tallinn, which was one of the instigators of the European Green Capital back in 2006, took only seventeen short years to finally win the coveted prize, “which shows how stubborn and focussed we are,” quipped Svet.

However, he also spoke about more serious matters. With the current impact of the war in Ukraine and the turmoil of the Covid19 pandemic, it would be easy to let green issues slide. “We have been living in hard times for years now,” he said, but the sustainable transition must remain a priority.

Ahead of a series of three short panel debates, the mayors and deputy mayors were also joined online by European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, who also spoke of taking precautions against the potential for backsliding when it comes to prioritising environmental challenges. “The European Green Deal is an umbrella to protect us all,” he said.

Within this vision, the climate law brings a biding promise of a climate-neutral future. “With FitFor55 we have more ambitious targets for 2030…and with RepowerEU we are addressing our energy needs and accelerating the rollout of renewables,” said the Commissioner.

In addition, with new legislation on the way, including on nature restoration, the circular economy and €1.8 trillion being made available from the EU budget, it’s clear that the EU is also trying to keep climate goals at the top of the political agenda.

Hélène Peskine, Permanent Secretary of Urbanism, Building and Architecture Plan, at the French Ministry of Ecological Transition, used her keynote speech to hone in on the fact that climate policies are not always well received at local level – the gilet jaunes being one example from France of how such policies must not be taken in isolation, but always with a thought to how it affects people.

Digital, social and ecological transition

Digitalisation and climate change are two closely related transitions that are often placed together at the centre of many policy initiatives. However, the link between the digital and climate agendas still sometimes struggles to translate into actions on the ground. The local level is the best placed to be the focal point of both transitions, while also involving citizens, businesses and other entities.

Responding to this conundrum of how best to assert the role of the local level, Councillor Annette Christie, from Glasgow, noted that the pandemic has further highlighted the vulnerability of many people in terms of job security, and placing an increased burden on women in particular when it comes to unpaid labour such as homeschooling, elderly care, cooking and cleaning.

With this in mind, the recent host of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26 is working to ensure its many climate policies are as inclusive as possible, including by crowing in private financing through the city’s greenprint for investment.

The goal is to allow projects such as a 10-year €1O billion retrofits of homes in the Glasgow City Region to achieve net-zero carbon emissions give greater energy security, lower household energy bills, warmer homes and better health outcomes through reduced fuel poverty.

In Porto, Filipe Araújo, the city’s Vice Mayor, and Chair of Eurocities Environment Forum said that upholding the European Green Deal “is the only and the right way,” for Europeans to move forward because it not only offers the route to creating more jobs and maintaining a strong economy but because sustainability is also about responding to the needs of people.

“Sustainability is not about asking more and more of the economy,” he said, but rather about using sources that simply were not considered before – such as is the case in creating energy communities. Such actions put people at the centre, and one of the best ways to do this, according to Araújo, is to lower tariffs “putting money back into people’s pockets”.

One example of this, which connects also to increased digitalisation is the Porto city card, which residents can apply for to pay less for a range of municipal services. For example, those aged over 65 can use it to make a €2 fare to a health centre where they have an appointment.

Mayor Piolle of Grenoble agreed that “those three transitions are not at the same level.” There is one focus to keep in mind – how we deal with climate change – and this often impacts the poorest first. With this in mind, the mayor sees digitalisation as a means to help in the ecological transition.

Mapping the journey to carbon neutrality

Cities are all at different stages on their journey to carbon neutrality, and the effects of climate change are felt differently. So what challenges does this create and what are the common denominators across cities that can help to craft broader approaches?

“I don’t need tools, but we need a vision,” commented Sylvain Godinot, Deputy Mayor of Lyon, who pointed out that the city does already measure carbon emissions, and increasingly access European programmes, but the core element of sustainable transition must be about bringing people with you. The model of the participative budget is a good way to involve people from the start in such discussions, he said.

In Lyon, one of the current challenges is that trends show that more people will soon be affected by seasonal heat than by cold snaps. Besides searching for climate adaptation measures, the deputy mayor is also keen to invest in better energy efficiency. Indeed, to this end, the city has reduced its CO2 equivalent output by around 30% in the last decade, but now it is looking at new ways to develop efficiency with a view to working within its wider metropolitan area, including by making better functional use of regional food and mobility systems.

Tallinn meanwhile sees itself as quite rich in natural ecosystems, as well as land on its territory that can have a high green potential, such as former Soviet military bases. However, according to Svet, there may be a shortage of tools that allow for clear comparisons to be made with any similar cities, which would work well to benchmark efforts and learn from the best practice of other cities. For example, to make the city suitable for cyclists all year round, it would be best to find cities with similar meteorological conditions.

Tristian Riom, Deputy Mayor of Nantes thinks of “difference as an opportunity,” especially because the city level is the right scale to try out new initiatives, which can then be shared with other cities. Increasingly, for example, Nantes’ policymakers are trying to consider the region where people actually live – as well as continuing to test ideas that came out of the grand débats from a few years ago. When it comes to thinking about support from the European level, for Riom, it comes down to the capital and also the manpower – often capabilities that cities struggle with.

François Wakenhut from the European Commission commented that the diversity in cities is tremendous, which becomes the main challenge on the Commission’s side when designing appropriate tools, especially to even out discrepancies from local level realities and national and even regional approaches on challenges such as energy supplies.

He acknowledged that cities need both a stronger voice in the design of tools to speed up the sustainable transition – citing the 100 climate-neutral smart cities mission as a good example – as well as more capacity building options.

While not quite all the money available to cities via such tools is ‘absorbed’ at local level, this is often due to constraints such as a lack of local expertise, as alluded to by Riom, and to this extent capacity building options from the European level can include help to develop local strategies.

Speed up by working better together

Nils Larsen, Group Leader for the Green Party and Chairman of the Sustainability Committee, Umea, said that cities tend to work in a more holistic approach to climate change, bringing in different aspects such as energy poverty. However, it often means that cities, especially Swedish cities, which have set up their own climate city contract, are ready to transition much faster, and that it would be helpful to have new regulatory changes, to centralise more local knowledge.

The Viable Cities initiative aims to create this sort of transformative system change, by bringing together local municipalities and 5 government agencies to work towards climate neutrality by 2030.

Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent, said that it’s essential for cities to have space to test out what works, and to work across layers of government to expand successful initiatives. However, she noted that a lot of ground still needs to be made up here, because too many barriers currently exist to really smooth cooperation between levels of government. For example, sourcing healthy food for school meals, and ensuring short, local and sustainable value chains can necessitate several steps.

Throughout the Covid19 pandemic, the greatest burden fell on the shoulders of the local level, which is the same now regarding the integration of refugees from Ukraine, noted Edvards Smiltens, Vice Mayor of Riga. At the same time, it’s clear that national budgets have also taken a knock during the health crisis.

However, given the possibility of the local level to effect change, Smiltens said there is a lack of funds for inter-regional projects. For example, Riga recently founded the ‘Riga metropolis’ – an association of municipalities “so that together we can achieve larger goals,” which would be necessary to better connect up transport systems and take other steps “including the question of how to make the city greener”.

One recent innovation of the European Commission is the ‘Missions’ model, taking inspiration from the idea of a ‘moonshot’ a goal, like the one set by John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon, that set ambitious, but possible goals. Insofar as cities are mostly concerned, the one to look out for in the 100 climate neutral and Smart cities. “The point the resonates best with me is that cities learn best from each other,” said Matthew Baldwin, Deputy Director General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission.

“I genuinely believe this tool I’ve inherited, this Mission, can be an enormous help, not just for the cities that are in it…and not by telling you want to do, but by providing a network.”

With 377 cities signed up for the Mission, it’s clear that this could be a useful follow up. Baldwin also noted that more efforts needs to go into developing national networks, and that the Mission approach can even inspire a transition in multilevel governance.

“Certainly cities are going to have to transform how they do things…Certainly member states are going to have to do things differently. And certainly, we at the European level are going to have to get out of our own silos, work across DGs and help you achieve the things you need to achieve,” he concluded.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer