A recovery for one, a recovery for all

5 November 2020

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” once opined former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

In 2020, the year of tumult and change, cities now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to radically change aspects of our lives we once took for granted. The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and the transition to a future way of life must be green and fair – but how do cities finance this?

The question was the order of the day as mayors from a wide range of European cities gathered alongside analysts and a politician from the European Parliament at Eurocities’ annual conference on 5 November.

EU paths to the transition

“As mayors, we owe it to our citizens to stand up for a climate agreement and to turn the Paris agreement into a reality,” said Eurocities president and mayor of Stockholm, Anna König Jerlmyr, referring to the worldwide accord to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

But often, cities’ hands are tied by funding or policy constraints from higher authorities. MEP Margarida Marques, the vice-chair on the EU’s Committee of Budgets, noted that the priority for the EU’s next seven-year budget is to channel the funds in the right direction, while ensuring that cities have the capacity to implement initiatives. “Europe has a vision, it’s up to us to work together to use the funds to benefit citizens and not interests,” she said.

EU and state funding is essential, according to the mayor of Vantaa, Ritva Viljanen. The city is the fastest growing in Finland, and therefore needs all the financial assistance it can get. But as the city grows, so do emissions. A large part of this comes down to public procurement. According to Viljanen, Vantaa is aiming to have emissions-free construction sites by 2025 – but she stresses that this will have a cost. On procurement, Stockholm’s Jerlmyr points out that her city’s work with the business community has shown that planning for sustainable procurement comes with some necessary changes to the face of the city, with additions such as charging points for commercial electric vehicles. “This is why we now need to plan for the city of 2030,” she said.

Challenges and costs for cities

The vision is there, but how much will it cost? Economist Robert Westerdahl provided the session with a sum that, at first, seemed eye-wateringly expensive – €960 million for a city with 100,000 inhabitants. But Westerdahl, whose consultancy Material Economics has collaborated extensively with companies and cities to provide analysis on the green transition, insisted that it’s worth the money. Targeting various sectors such as construction, transport and private households, the costs will not solely fall at the feet of the cities. What’s more, it’s even economically rational. “When you look at energy costs and health benefits, from a societal perspective, the economics of this transition is positive,” said Westerdahl. Having the evidence base is important, he added, but how to carry out the transition is another matter.

Laying out a strong economic case will be crucial for cities that are suffering, said Belit Onay, mayor of Hanover. Cities like his have suddenly had to switch from looking towards the future to ensuring the immediate public health of its citizens. “It’s not easy,” Onay said, “city revenues have collapsed.” For the mayor, the EU is critical to solve this, and cities must rely on more opportunities for European funding in the future. But collaboration in Eurocities should hopefully bear fruit for cities. With the effects of climate change likely to be felt first at a local level, cities and national governments must work with all stakeholders to ensure a just transition in cities. The vice-president of Grand Lyon, Helène Dromain, agreed, outlining that cities must help “lighthouse projects”, but reminded attendees and her fellow panellists that many cities are still in the fighting phase of the COVID-19 crisis – the recovery is yet to come. Tallinn’s mayor Mihhail Kölvart came out strong with a recommendation to the EU that has long been echoed by Eurocities: EU support provided to cities in a package. Kölvart called for more integration in financing to give cities the opportunities and security to enact long-term green and just strategies.

Nobody left behind

A key concern for many cities is the ‘fairness’ portion of the ‘fair and green’ transition. This concern is strongly held by the leader of Glasgow City Council, Susan Aitken. The host for next year’s scheduled COP26 climate conference, the city is already doing its utmost to ensure Glasgow becomes a green city, with projects to clean up the city’s river, the Clyde, and retrofit homes to make them more energy-efficient. But poorer citizens must not be left behind, and the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities. “Inclusive growth must underscore the green recovery,” said Aitken. She added that current trends in ecological transition have not been reaching the most vulnerable communities. “Poverty takes choice away from people,” she said. A just transition must enable people from the most vulnerable communities to make the choice of low-carbon options.

Mayors from across Europe chimed in to agree with this desire to have a just transition for everyone. Oulu’s mayor Päivi Laajala pointed out the need for a just transition in supply chains, mentioning the city’s peat energy industry as an example. But it’s important not to forget the consumers. “Most people using the end-product are regular people with regular homes and regular income. We need to make sure that the cost of transition is not heavy on them,” she added. For Katrin Habenschaden, deputy mayor of Munich, the economic potential of a just transition is clear for her city’s citizens but requires a shift in the economic model itself, a shift in culture: “We must take society with us on the journey.” A point echoed by the mayor of Strasbourg, Jeanne Barseghian: “A green transition must be fair and democratic, or it won’t be at all.”

Time for cooperation

“The time to re-think the impossible is now,” said Eurocities‘ Secretary General Anna-Lisa Boni, wrapping up the session. She indicated the strong need for joined-up thinking and reminded panellists and attendees that there are many avenues for enacting a just and green transition: the EU’s Green Deal, through public procurement, or through climate law, among others. But the most urgent issue to address is cooperation between the European, national, and local governments. Above all, Boni stated that cities are the places were change will happen, be it economic or social. Cities may be the places where Europe’s problems play out the most, but they are also the places that can bring innovation and governance to tackle the issues.