Cities: one piece of the puzzle of climate neutrality

17 November 2023

Local governments are at the forefront of addressing today’s most pressing urban challenges, including environmental degradation, migration, housing crises, and social inequalities.

Among them, climate change has emerged as the foremost concern for municipalities across Europe, as confirmed by Eurocities Pulse survey. In fact, climate action was, by far, the top priority for European mayors in 2023.

Meanwhile, over 5,000 European cities have committed to the Covenant of Mayors initiative and embraced Sustainable Energy Action Plans. The EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities has has shown enthusiasm and great political commitment, with more than 100 cities in Europe pledging to the ambitious goal of becoming climate neutral by 2030.

Cities under great pressure

“Local governments are under great pressure today,” says Stefania Mascolo, Neutral Path Project Coordinator at Eurocities. “On one side, they commit to the goal of climate neutrality, but in the meantime still need to provide services and very concrete action at local level for their citizens.”

The range of action of cities is limited. On the one hand, because a large part of the emissions are beyond their direct control, but are in the hands of the private sector or residents. On the other hand, because many policies and regulations are dictated to them from above – at regional, national or European level.

Local action does not take place in a vacuum, but in the context of broader regional and national frameworks
— Stefania Mascolo

Cities cannot achieve climate neutrality working alone. To make a meaningful impact in their efforts, a multi-level governance approach is essential. This approach involves cooperation and coordination between the European Union, member states, and local and regional authorities.

Looking at the big picture

“Local action does not take place in a vacuum, but in the context of broader regional and national frameworks that can either empower, facilitate, or slow down city-level action,” explains Mascolo.

Local governments play a crucial role in climate action but need the support and alignment of national and regional policies. National policies determine the competencies and resources available to local administrations. For instance, policies related to energy directly affect cities’ capacity to regulate and implement climate actions.

Fragmentation of responsibilities within municipal administration hinders effective climate action. “Climate policy is often split between different city departments, which work differently, and rely on different skill sets, objectives, tools, and indicators,” shares Stefania Mascolo. For instance, one common scenario is that energy and planning departments do not really interact with those responsible for regulating buildings’ heating and cooling.

Similarly, cities encounter a lack of alignment between national and local policies, including fiscal regulations and public procurement.

Innovative governance models are needed to bridge the gap between the different government levels, and stop local administrations from working in silos.

In this sense, Climate City Contracts arise as one innovative governance tool to boost alignment among national, regional, and local level. These contracts result from an iterative co-creation process led by cities and involving multiple stakeholders at various governance levels.

The Urban Agenda for the EU

Multi-level governance is at the heart of the Urban Agenda for the EU, an initiative that brings together the EU Commission, member states, cities, and other key actors to jointly address urban challenges and promote the urban dimension of EU policy. Through partnerships between these entities, the Urban Agenda aims to enhance urban policy in three key areas: improving existing regulations related to urban challenges, supporting innovative and accessible funding sources for urban areas, and facilitating the sharing and development of knowledge, including data and best practices.

“The EU is pushing to make sure that these different levels of government have a coherent vision together and truly enable common climate action,” explains Mascolo.

Within the context of the EU, every member state has its unique governance and policy framework. It is in this diversity that cities committed to achieving net-zero emissions can find opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration.

By coming together, they can exchange insights into best practices and the challenges they face in governance and policymaking. This collective knowledge sharing fosters the development of innovative governance solutions, enabling cities to navigate the complexities of their net-zero journey more effectively.

Zaragoza, in the spotlight

In this sense, one of the cities that is putting innovative governance models in practice is Zaragoza. The Spanish city has taken significant steps to develop a robust governance structure and raise public awareness about their energy and environmental goals for 2030. “We want to implement a new governance model that involves all city actors in monitoring the progress of actions across various sectors,” explains the General Director of European Funds of the Zaragoza City Council, Elena Navarro Gascón.

We want to implement a new governance model that involves all city actors
— Elena Navarro

To avoid working in silos, the municipality has created the General Directorate of European Funds within the City Council, coordinating various municipal services, ensuring alignment in efforts across urban planning, environment, green infrastructure, mobility, or housing.

Mission Label certified

Furthermore, Zaragoza is one of the first cities that has received their Mission Label, an important milestone in their quest to become climate-neutral by 2030. The Mission Label represents an acknowledgement of the successful development of Climate City Contract. Developed through collaboration with the City Council, the CIRCE Foundation, and active citizen and stakeholder engagement, this contract outlines ambitious goals, such as an 80% reduction in emissions by 2030.

“This award represents further recognition of Zaragoza’s trajectory in the European NetZeroCities Mission, and the quality and viability of its commitments and projects in this area,” says Navarro.

The plan includes measures to electrify public transport, compliance with European directives on decarbonisation, and promotion of energy rehabilitation of homes.

National support

Zaragoza is one of the seven Spanish cities that have been selected as part of the EU Mission. Out of the first ten cities that have been awarded label of ‘EU Mission Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities’, five of them come from this country.

These cities have the support of CitiES 2030 Platform, an initiative launched by the Spanish Ministry of Ecological Transition. It aims to provide a space for dialogue to facilitate, align and coordinate the efforts of these seven Spanish cities towards climate neutrality.

Zaragoza is also one of the lighthouse cities in Neutral Path, an EU-funded project that demonstrates the deployment of Positive Clean Energy Districts. Zaragoza hosted the first policy discussion of Neutral Path, a format to allow cities to discuss good practices and challenges when dealing with governance and policies, to share knowledge and learn from each other.


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer