Accelerating climate action at the Cities Mission Conference 2024

1 July 2024

Climate action is the top priority for European Mayors this year, according to the Eurocities Pulse Mayors’ Survey. “If the European Union is questioning if climate action must be supported, local leaders clearly say ‘yes’,” said André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities, at the opening panel of the Cities Mission Conference.

The Cities Mission Conference, hosted by Valencia on 24-25 June 2024 as part of the Valencia Cities Climate Week, brought together local leaders, decision makers, and experts to discuss progress, challenges, and strategies in combatting the climate crisis.

“It is exciting to see the advancements cities are making in the quest for climate neutrality,” said Patrick Child, Deputy Director-General at DG Environment and Mission Manager of the 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission, “but also those that go beyond slashing emissions, bringing adaptation, biodiversity, and a cleaner environment to the table, together.”

Cities leading the charge

Cities cover only 3% of the Earth’s surface yet are responsible for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In the words of Dagur B. Eggertsson, Deputy Mayor of Reykjavik, “Cities, at the forefront of climate change, are the place where we either succeed, or we fail.”

“The Green Deal is one of the greatest things we’ve done in the past years,” echoed Filipe Araújo, Vice-Mayor of Porto. “Even with several crises, such as the energy crisis, Covid-19, or the invasion of Ukraine, climate neutrality remains one of our goals, and sustainability one of our core values.”

The Mission Cities Conference took place in Valencia, Green Capital 2024, during the Valencia Cities Climate Week. Image by NetZeroCities

Throughout the conference, participants highlighted cities’ unique position to innovate and implement climate solutions tailored to their local contexts. As Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Iliana Ivanova, put it, “Cities are places for inspiration, innovation and experimentation.” But achieving climate neutrality is not an easy task, and one-size-fits-all solutions do not exist.

From design to implementation

Mission Cities, those cities selected for the 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission, are transitioning from strategy design to implementation on the ground. More than 50 cities have now been awarded the Mission Label, marking the signing of their Climate City Contract, with the rest expected to follow suit in the coming months.

The discussions at the conference emphasised that cities not only face the immediate impacts of climate change but also serve as laboratories for testing and scaling solutions. “There is no magic bullet that will bring cities to net zero,” said Eline Vigre, Coordinator of the Mission Cities in Stavanger, and advisor to the mayor on all matters related to the Mission. “It’s the sum of a lot of small actions, innovations, that make a significant difference.”

This was underscored by examples shared during the event. Cities are implementing projects across sectors, from energy to buildings, waste management or transport, demonstrating their capacity to lead by example and inspire broader systemic change.

That is why collaboration and knowledge sharing play a key role in identifying what is working and what is not, and the drivers and preconditions needed to scale up solutions.

“Collaboration is a deeply ingrained value in Europe. That’s the only thing we need, an ability to properly cooperate, because everything else we already have,” expressed Claire Roumet, Responsible for Strategic partnerships, EU Policy & Overall Coordination at Energy Cities.

However, to truly harness this collaborative spirit, it is essential to integrate it systematically across all levels of governance and sectors. “We need to make the collaboration systemic. Cooperation in all our projects, around energy, sustainable transport, climate change adaptation and mitigation, need to be approached in a systemic, impactful way,” added Mohamed Ridouani, Mayor of Leuven.

Securing funding for climate neutrality

Access to funding emerged as a critical factor in empowering cities to achieve climate neutrality, as various participants at the Cities Mission Conference stressed.

Overall, the discussions underscored that achieving climate neutrality requires not only ambitious goals but also strategic financial planning and partnerships. Access to diverse funding sources, including public grants, private investments, and innovative financing mechanisms, is crucial for cities to accelerate the transition to sustainable, resilient urban environments.

“Access to public grants is complex and time consuming,” acknowledged Fabien Perez, Deputy Mayor of Marseille. Mobilising private sector funding, and navigating EU and national regulations are other main challenges cities face when trying to secure funding.

To overcome these and other obstacles in accessing funding, the European Commission announced the launch of the Climate City Capital Hub (CCCH), an international financial resource to further support cities participating in the EU Mission.

The Climate City Capital Hub

The Capital Hub aims to provide cities with comprehensive financial advice and structure their financial needs. “City finance specialists will be joining the cities working with the treasury department to work with project preparation and approach the local financing community, while the Capital Hub will approach the international financing community,” explained Allison Lobb, Executive Director of Bankers without Borders. This initiative will facilitate the introduction of city projects to a range of capital providers, including lenders and investors from the public and private sectors.

“Blended financing will make a portfolio of interesting projects in terms of return on investment, but also with other projects like school retrofits, mobility infrastructure, etc., which have low to no-return on investment,” underscored Teresa Czerwińska, Vice-President of the European Investment Bank. This blend ensures a balanced approach, catering to both financially viable projects and those delivering significant social and environmental benefits.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) has also committed to supporting cities with a dedicated lending envelope of €2 billion. “While talent is equally spread, opportunities are not. We need to bring opportunities to those that hold the talent,” stressed Nadia Calviño, President of the European Investment Bank.

This fund aims to support plans to invest in energy-efficient buildings, district heating systems, renewable energy, sustainable mobility, urban renewal, and social infrastructure. The Capital Hub will work in collaboration with the EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities and the EU Mission on Adaptation to Climate Change.

This collaboration aims to engage private capital more effectively, supporting both mitigation and adaptation projects. “It is great to see the EU Missions on Cities and on Adaptation to Climate Change come together and join forces. With the Climate City Capital Hub, we will enhance our support to trailblazing cities that chart the course to climate neutrality with their mitigation and adaptation plans,” remarked Commissioner Ivanova.

A new mindset

The private sector has a lot of wealth ready to be invested. The problem, according to Matiss Paegle, Investment Director Investment Director at BalCap, and Cities Mission Board Member, is the lack of projects that meet investment criteria.

“Now we need to go to a paradigm shift, with cities being entrepreneurial, building the competence needed to have bankable projects that attract private capital,” he shared.

Jesús Julio Carnero, Mayor of Valladolid, called for a portfolio approach, going beyond the current focus on short-cycle projects. “Future calls have to talk about processes for decarbonisation, rather than individual projects”.

Breaking down silos

Beyond financial support, the conference underscored the importance of breaking down silos within and among governance levels. Various speakers highlighted the necessity of engaging residents directly in climate planning, through mechanisms like climate assemblies.

Grassroots engagement is crucial for ensuring that climate policies are not only effective but also inclusive and reflective of community needs. As María José Catalá, Mayor of Valencia, stated, “Cities must advance towards carbon neutrality, but they must do it hand in hand with citizens. Otherwise, we risk our efforts being a mere slogan. If our neighbours don’t feel listened to, our work will be in vain.”

The Mission Platform, currently supported by Eurocities through the EU-funded NetZeroCities project, is bringing that approach by default, as Climate City Contracts are co-created with local stakeholders and residents. “We have been working on climate action for the past two decades, but for the first time, with the Cities Mission, we are involving other actors, bringing citizens and the private sector on board,” noted Aino Kulonen, Environmental Coordinator in Lahti.  

Collaboration at all levels of governance, aligning the goals and vision of the local, regional, national and EU administrations, is needed to drive meaningful progress. According to Thomas Osdoba, Programme Director at NetZeroCities, this is precisely the work of the EU Missions: to bridge the gap between the EU green deal and the future priorities for Europe’s economic and industrial policies.

“What we are starting to see is a direct engagement between the cities and Europe, in which cities are drivers of innovation that can bring new ideas up the system,” he said. “Without a multi-level governance approach, we won’t be able to achieve our mission.”

At the same time, breaking silos within municipalities is just as important as collaboration across different governance levels. Cities highlighted that climate work needs to be transversal, with sustainability ingrained across all departments of the city administration. Only a holistic approach can ensure that environmental goals are not isolated initiatives, but are integrated into every aspect of urban planning and management.

Mayors at the conference stressed the need for competence and authority in managing energy, transport, and financial planning within their cities. “With the current governance, we cannot achieve the goals of this mission, or any other mission,” declared Pau Solanilla, Commissioner of City Promotion in Barcelona. We need to make the decisions where the citizens are sitting. We need strategic vision and we need to take into account the real needs of our citizens.”

“Give mayors the power, so they can make real change,” summarised Eckart Würzner, Lord Mayor of the City of Heidelberg. 

This is only the beginning

The Cities Mission Conference concluded on an optimistic note, with participants reiterating their commitment to sustainable urban agendas and collaborative approaches to climate action.

A recurring theme throughout the conference was the transition from designing ambitious climate plans to effectively implementing them on the ground. Osdoba highlighted this evolution: “We are talking about missions, not projects, so of course, things evolve. What we are doing today is very different from what we were doing two years ago.”

“The best value examples of the Mission Label as a driver are yet to be created,” he added. “We are about to see more and more best cases coming up, we are just getting started.”

Spanish mayors captured the spirit of the conference signing the Valencia Green Charter, a commitment to enhancing climate resilience while prioritising social justice.

Spanish mayors sign the Valencia Green Charter. Image by NetZeroCities

Cities also used this opportunity to demand that the upcoming European institutions maintain the Green Deal and climate neutrality targets. “The power of Europe is the power of cities – we need to keep up with our good work, pushing the European Parliament and the Commission to keep this effort,” said Filipe Araújo, “Because this is what our citizens want: a more sustainable future.”


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer