Cities must be climate ambitious and engage citizens

4 November 2021

Climate-neutral and climate-friendly alternatives to fossil fuel are deemed as ‘high risk’ because “they haven’t shown to bring enough profit yet, they don’t have decades of example behind them,” said Janine O’Keeffe, SchoolStrike4Climate adult supporter and active in Fridays For Future, a youth-led and organised global climate strike movement, on the eve of Eurocities 2021 annual conference in Leipzig, Germany.

Janine O’Keeffe, Fridays for Future

However, “the fossil industry is actually a higher risk. Look at the recent floods in Germany, that’s a far higher risk and we haven’t been acknowledging it. The climate crisis is not only an emergency, but it is also extremely urgent,” she warned.

‘’Many decision-makers now react like deers in front of a truck, blinded by the headlights – they realise the climate threat but freeze because they can’t see where to go. Our decision-makers are only trained in ‘business as usual,’’ added O’Keeffe.

She said that often politicians don’t listen to citizens and that they are often “stuck between a rock and a hard place, between what science says and the idea that ‘there are no jobs’. But there are no jobs on a dead planet.” Therefore it’s important for citizens to participate actively in the search for “mechanisms to mitigate our climate crisis.” Without citizens’ engagement, this is an impossible task.

“It is critical to ensure that people understand and agree and Mayors have a huge role here to mobilise and energise their citizens. And most mayors have a magnificent local resource in Fridays For Future, SchoolStrikers, and other climate movements,” she also added, giving a hint of the discussion that would follow suit the next day during the conference.

O’Keeffe sentenced that “a lot of investment can be made available if you have the voice of the citizens with you, as a mayor; community currency, green bonds, you can go to the EU for help, etc.”

Local Green Deal

Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim

Cities must be at the forefront of the struggle to tackle climate change. And the city of Mannheim is a Local Green Deal pilot city, an agreement that goes beyond the usual ‘action planning’ approach. “Our Local Green Deal bring together our citizens and stakeholders from the business, industry, research and innovation sectors around a strategy aligned with the goals, priorities and principles of the European Green Deal,” said Peter Kurz, Mayor of the German city of Mannheim before attending the conference.

And, Mayor Kurz added, “Mannheim’s Local Green Deal is not simply the implementation of European policies. It identifies existing gaps and brings together ideas, projects and stakeholders from across our city.” And one of Mannheim’s top priorities is low-emission mobility. “Mannheim is the birthplace of the bicycle,” says Mayor Kurz, noting that “we are proud of this heritage and committed to making our city even more bike-friendly by closing traffic network gaps and developing more parking spots and facilities for bicycles.”

This is a dynamic process, and Mannheim sees the Local Green Deal “as a framework for concrete municipal and community action, and as a recovery and resilience plan to help transform our city and local economy towards sustainability and climate neutrality,” fully integrated with European policies and also focused on recovering from the pandemic.

The bridges created between different actors, such as business, civil society and local governments can help mitigate the issues identified by O’Keefe, such as promoting citizen participation and fostering local initiatives to motivate economic growth in a sustainable way, showing that climate-friendly initiatives can compete with the “conservatism of our system,” said O’Keefe, adding that “climate does not wait, it is changing according to the laws of physics, as a reaction to the carbon we put in the atmosphere. And it goes on while we talk.”

Social justice to promote change

Grégory Doucet, Mayor of Lyon

“In our city action plan, we affirm that we need to pursue two goals: the necessary ecological transition, which concerns the economy, industry, energy, mobilities, and social justice. Both issues have to be addressed simultaneously,” said Grégory Doucet, Mayor of Lyon, in France on the eve of Leipzig’s conference.

He noted the importance of “developing cooperation between territories, in order to share good practices and constitute ambitious alliances in favour of climate protection,” and mentioned Eurocities as a network to “build an archipelago of climate ambitious cities.”

Mobility is one of Lyon’s main focuses. Doucet lists some relevant initiatives and said that his government has “established a social pricing system on public transportation to the advantage of low-income citizens where 130.000 people are given free access to the service, and 70.000 get an important discount;”

“Simultaneously”, he continued, “the budget of public transportation is increased by two, in order to extend significantly the network of tramway and subway, especially in direction to disadvantaged neighbourhoods or cities of the metropolitan area. We imagined an ambitious bicycle lanes network, made of 13 lines and 350 kilometres, linking all territories of our metropolitan area.”

Mayor Doucet also noted that housing is a major concern and he says that “our goal is to ensure to everyone decent and affordable housing in our city through an ambitious social housing program. We would like to reach an average of 25% of social housing, to maintain social diversity in our centres and prevent us from urban sprawl.”

The role of activism during Eurocities Conference

Ninna Hedeager Olsen, deputy mayor of Copenhagen.

During the Eurocities 2021 annual conference in Leipzig, O’Keefe started with a provocation. She said she was not content with what she’s hearing so far. “2050 is the basis for the ‘blablabla’,” she says, noting that it’s too far in the future. “Are we giving our children the planet we were born into? Are we stepping up for the challenge?” she asked.

“The climate is on a negative spiral and is threatening our planet and all life on earth. I don’t want to be the person who helped that, especially not politically. We are supposed to be intelligent. I really wonder where we are. Maybe we are intelligent as individuals, but not as a group. We soar off the branch we are sitting on and we are sitting on the wrong side of the branch. Climate is like quicksand, you slowly get further in and as time passes the harder is to get out,” lamented and warned O’Keefe.

Doucet, answering O’Keefe, said he fully agrees with her. “We have to fully transform this vision, this fear, into actual action. This is why I decided to engage in politics.”  He said he pursues two goals, the necessary ecological transition, which concerns the economy, industry, energy, mobilities, and social justice. Both issues have to be addressed simultaneously.”

“We have promoted local labels, such as ‘Lyon fare and sustainable city’, that we give to local business compromised with sustainable practices,” also noteed the mayor of Lyon.

But despite all efforts, Ninna Hedeager Olsen, Deputy Mayor of Copenhagen, said that “Copenhagen still has a lot of problems, it’s not so known that car ownership is growing in the city even before the pandemic, so we need more cooperation with other cities to formulate ideas to change the situation.”

Olsen also said that “having an activist with us is important to show the shortcomings of politicians, we need the people, activists, to push us on making the hard decisions.” But she noted that “we cannot individualise, we must push politicians to act.”

Kurz agreed with O’Keefe saying that they have lost time. “We weren’t fast enough, that’s pretty clear”. But he notes that the tone of the message,e how it’s delivered, can alienate people. Pushing for individual guilt is not the way. O’Keefe agrees, saying that they must say that “it’s the institutions, the processes that are pushing them to use cars, plastic, eating meat.”

“Cities have the ability to push new ideas, to actually spark changes. Look at Leipzig, the 1989 revolution started here,” reminded O’Keefe.

Both Doucet and Kurz noted the importance of bikes, saying that their cities have hugely invested in creating bike lanes, offering bikes to citizens among other related initiatives as a small example of their efforts.

Mayor Doucet, asking for mayors to keep discussing and dedicated to this transition, said that “there’s not a single day I don’t think about the future for my 6-year-old daughter.”

Main image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer