February temperatures here in Brussels have recently been smashed – reaching nearly 17 degrees Celsius three days in a row. It’s a pattern that has been replayed in other cities around Europe, and across the globe. Each summer, each winter, becomes hotter. Or, inversely, other freak weather occurrences happen – snow in Mexico City and Austin for example.
These new weather cycles are well documented, and probably not even too shocking to most readers, but they do hark to the impact of anthropogenic behaviours, and attest to a need for change.
For a year now, the European Commission has heralded its European Green Deal – the EU is to be the global trend setter in limiting the increase in noxious emissions. Indeed, the agreement by EU member states in the European Council last December to cut emissions by at least 55% by 2030 was indicative of this desire to champion the climate, even if it was slightly below the level of ambition called for by cities.
Now comes the hard part. Having high ambitions is laudable. But ambitions need teeth. And despite very ambitious mitigation policies, climate change is already happening. The EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change to 2030, published yesterday, aims to move the European union from planning adaptation to implementation, from understanding the problem to developing solutions.
“At local level, many cities have already set ambitious strategies to prepare for and adjust to both the current effects of climate change and the predicted impacts in the future,” says Louise Coffineau, Eurocities Policy Advisor on Climate. “In fact, nearly 90% of Eurocities members have adopted a climate adaptation strategy to protect their citizens.”
The ambitious strategy set out by the European Commission creates a pathway to prepare for the impact of climate change over the next decade (updating the previous legislation from 2013).
“There are many positive actions cited within the new EU strategy,” says Coffineau. “For example, there is a strong link between climate resilience and health, and a strong emphasis on nature based solutions and the importance of freshwater. These are crucial elements for our cities – many of which are investing in green and blue infrastructure, renovating buildings with bio-based materials, and rehabilitating areas to create more green spaces for both the citizens and biodiversity.”
For example, in Porto, which has already helped decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by over 36% from 2004 levels, has focussed strongly on climate adaptation, such as the regeneration of the heart of Asprela campus. The Asprela Central Park brings a new, green, area to the city, that is also 98% permeable. According to Filipe Araújo, Chair of Eurocities Environment Forum and Vice-Mayor of Porto, “at Asprela Park we have 10,000 cubic metres of storage…we’ll have a big lake there if we have a storm.” The purpose of the project is to manage the Asprela and Manga rivers so that they work in harmony with the surrounding green space. With this crucial piece of infrastructure, the city hopes to ease flooding pressures for the metro, as well as pedestrian, bike lanes and roads.
“We are looking at this in a very strategic way,” says Araújo. For instance, he continues, “some streams were covered several years ago and we are trying to re-naturalise these areas.” Uncovering streams helps allow for a more natural flow of water, especially during times of storm surge, regenerating areas to bring nature back into the city.
“Indeed, cities can and are doing a lot,” says Coffineau, “but they cannot do everything alone. Much of the Communication set out by the European Commission is targeted towards member states while the impact of climate change is mainly happening at local level,” she continues. “In many cities, a large part of the territory is privately owned, making it extremely complex for local authorities to put in place necessary measures, such as increasing green areas to reduce the urban heat island effect. We need cities to be included in the design and implementation of the National Adaptation Plans. However, citizens and businesses must also not be forgotten.”
Another gap that is evident in the European Commission’s Communication is that there are no binding or measurable targets, nor a clear timeline. Without this, it will be very difficult to set out a common vision for local councils to measure the progress made in adapting local territories and to enforce resilience measures.
We know, from the experience of how fast governments have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, that rapid change is possible in response to a crisis. Cities across Europe have already recognised climate change as a threat and are changing the way they plan and construct themselves to minimise the impact of climate related hazards on their territories.