Are we fit for 55 yet?

30 March 2022

The EU’s lack of energy sovereignty may complicate its international relations at the moment, but a goal to move away from fossil fuels was already clear in the legislative packages of the European Green Deal. Given this rapidly changing geopolitical context, a swift and ambitious adoption of the Fit for 55 package – which sets out how the EU can cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 – is widely seen as precondition to eliminate dependency from Russian oil and gas imports.

“The business as usual scenario does not exist and is not an option” opined Pascal Canfin MEP, who hosted an online debate on Tuesday of the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal. The discussion focussed on the FitFor55 package and the urban transformation that will be necessary to create climate-neutral cities.

He referred to the European Green Deal as a long term strategy “that is not challenged by what is happening today in Ukraine and Russia,” even if there is a lot of debate around the shorter-term priorities, such as Europe’s food security and energy sovereignty.

As the place where most emissions are produced, actions taken in cities will be central to achieving this commitment. Moreover, with the transport and building sectors accounting for approximately 65% of the EU’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, the right investments can have big pay outs in terms of improving both urban liveability and people’s health.

A step in the right direction

“When you talk about FitFor55 package, you have to look at mayors as the points of contact for the implementation of everything that we’re going to talk about today, and I think that cities are really these platforms of now – of what you can do now for the future,” said Carlos Moedas, Mayor of Lisbon, who gave a keynote address.

“Without the cities you cannot really implement that vision,” said Moedas. And indeed, there is a lot that cities can do. Lisbon has more than 4,000 public buildings, according to Moedas. “Our idea is to use those buildings to create communities of energy with the solar Lisbon project,” he explained, which will help to produce energy that the municipality can give to local people who may be struggling to pay for their energy needs.

And other energy-saving measures, such as changing to LED lighting, could bring in an 80% saving on costs. When it comes to mobility, the mayor would like to see free use of public transport, but more immediately, the city is investing in electric vehicles, as well as cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

One ever-present question when it comes to implementing change must be ‘where does the money come from?’

Indeed, the monies allocated through the Recovery and Resilience Facility were highlighted by several speakers as an opportunity that must not be wasted, while Ciaran Cuffe MEP further highlighted existing money available through the European Investment bank and other sources of European Union funding.

“Now is the time to really move forward on retrofitting our buildings and in the heating and cooling sector there’s so much we can do. We need to replace gas boilers with heat pumps and this would significantly lower the emissions coming from the housing sector,” said Cuffe.

The revision of the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, part of the FitFor55 package, is a step in the right direction towards setting the right conditions for cities to do so.

Building consensus

Of course, reality doesn’t always match up with theory, which is why dialogue between different levels of government is always important.

“Budapest put together a big renovation programme and we were negotiating with the European Investment Bank, but the Hungarian reality is that a local authority, even Budapest, with one fifth of the population, cannot apply for a loan without the government,” said Kata Tüttő, Deputy Mayor of Budapest.

Elsewhere, in Vienna for instance, Executive City Councillor Jürgen Czernohorszky sounded a more positive note. “If we find urban solutions to the question of climate change today, we find solutions for the whole planet,” he said. “And when it comes to the transformation of our city, the building sector is a huge lever,” he added.

As part of Vienna’s climate road map, the city aims to replace half a million gas boilers in city apartments and workplaces with a renewable system such as district heating, local heating or heat pumps.

Tampere, meanwhile, is calculating life-cycle emissions from its buildings – which helps the city to make choices on whether a building should be refurbished or demolished and rebuilt, including on recycling, reusing, and reducing the impact of materials, according to Pekka Salmi, the city’s Deputy Mayor.

In addition, Tampere has invested heavily in local renewable energy in the past decade, increasing the share of renewable energy from 5% to 50%.

In Milan, the money made available through the recovery funds is proving to be a critical lever for building refurbishments, by offering subsidies on overall costs, according to Pierfrancesco Maran, Deputy Mayor. The challenge ahead is how to improve the quality of building stock, while maintaining a just transition, such that rent increases should be fully balanced by energy savings, and renovations should equally not force people out of their homes. To this end, social and public housing will be essential.

Driving change

One of the big steps of the FitFor55 package is the phasing out of the sales of new fossil-fuelled vehicles by 2035.

At city level, one of the ways to support this is to encourage people to change their mobility habits, which is by no means easy, as was highlighted by Jean-Claude Dardelet, Deputy Mayor of Toulouse, who is also Chair of the Eurocities Mobility Forum.

Toulouse is booming, according to the Deputy Mayor. The city has welcomed thousands of new inhabitants every year over the last decade, and this currently adds up to around 1,000 new vehicles on its roads every month. To continue the pivot towards lower emissions, the city has thus sought to promote the use of electric vehicles – deploying more than 250 charging points in the past year – as well as investing heavily in bicycle networks and hydrogen or electric rapid transit bus lines. With this in mind, Dardelet also pointed out that new standards on biogas would be useful to help cities work out the best route to take.

In terms of managing its post-pandemic recovery, investing in clean transport and clean air is a top priority for Zagreb. The city adopted a full revision of its energy and climate policies to match the EU climate law ambition to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030.

Despite this, emissions from the transport sector represent 53.9% of the city’s overall emissions and symbolise a big source of potential change. “There’s no running away from it,” commented Ivan Ivanković, the city’s head of Energy & Climate, “the current traffic situation in the city of Zagreb is honestly not that sustainable,” he adds.

Given the large amount of funding available to Croatia through the Recovery and Resilience facility, as well as via sources linked to the multiannual EU budget, Zagreb plans a complete renewal of its 418-strong bus fleet by 2030. Also, it will focus on other investments in its public transport infrastructure to help improve both mobility around the city and quality of life for its residents.

Riga is also using the recovery and resilience funds to invest in public transport, which is witnessing a slight resurgence in numbers after the Covid-related dip, and in evident correlation to the rising fuel prices, according to Inese Andersone, Head of the city development committee. Although the city does not have a metro line, the plan includes better connecting the state-run railway stations with the city’s public transport system, and adding micro-mobility points and integrating last mile solutions. One idea that the city is hopeful to implement is a unified ticket to work across several different operators within this local transport network. When it comes to other areas, such as a low emission zone, Andersone admits “we are just as the start,” but welcomed input from other colleagues to share examples of how to get this done.

In Rotterdam, the approach to mobility is part of a citywide climate agreement made with more than 100 companies and organisations, as well as thousands of citizens to become a climate-neutral city. The city wants to improve public transport, while also creating more space for pedestrians and cyclists, to make adopting sustainable mobility methods more attractive to people, according to Arno Bonte, Deputy Mayor.

To this end, the city has implemented a network of more than 4,000 public charging points, meaning that the average Rotterdammer should not have to travel more than 200 metres from their home in order to access one.

“There’s no excuse anymore and not to choose electric,” says Bonte. “And that’s also why we ask for a European network of charging points all over the continent,” he added.

Let’s be big on big things

“The European Green Deal is definitely not a problem, it’s the solution,” according to Filipe Araújo, Chair of Eurocities Environment Forum, and Deputy Mayor of Porto, who delivered closing remarks.

He reiterated that the needed transformation must happen in cities, in close connection with residents; and shared that all the energy bought by his own municipality, as well as municipal companies, is 100% coming from renewable sources. And by increasing the use of solar panels on public buildings and social housing, which comprises 13% of housing units in Porto, the city also plans to contribute to fighting energy poverty by creating energy communities.

“The National Recovery and Resilience Facility has many imperfections, we know, but it’s the one that we have available right now, so we have to use it,” he said of the funds that many cities highlighted are the key driver for their current actions. For instance, the city of Porto is building new metro lines and a bus rapid transit project.

“These are very old ambitions of the city that are only possible due to this recovery and resilience plan. But one thing we must ensure is that these projects are smart in a way that they help the city solve a structural problem. And mobility definitely is a big issue as we have heard,” he concluded.

You can watch the full debate here:

This event was coordinated in the context of the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer