Ghent hosts cities for an end to the energy crisis

28 April 2023

The energy crisis has been tough on many people living in cities, as well as local companies and local administrations. However, cities are acting fast to combat this crisis. In the short term, cities are supplying things like energy bonuses paid to individuals and companies struggling with their bills. In the long term, they are pushing a much broader transition towards sustainability, including through orchestrating energy efficient renovations of buildings and promulgating the use of green energy sources.

At the 2023 Eurocities Environment Forum hosted by Ghent this week, cities from all over Europe gathered to discuss how they are collaborating with businesses to move past the energy crisis, sharing inspiring ideas as well as being candid about the ongoing challenges. They were joined by representatives from the industry, including the CEOs of the North Sea Port and Solar Power Europe, as well as representatives from the European Commission seeking to collaborate with cities to enable their work on climate and energy.

You can watch a recording of the keynote speeches on EU policy, and the public political debate here.

“Our heavy industry is transforming into a much cleaner industry,” announced Matthias De Clercq, Mayor of Ghent, “and our ambition to become carbon neutral is the driving force behind this transition.”

Setting the scene for the Environment Forum, De Clercq reminded those present that “things are changing at lightning speed, so we have to act now to avoid the worst, but we can’t do it alone. We have to do it together, together with our residents, together with our companies, together with other levels of government.”

Things are changing at lighting speed
— Matthias De Clercq

Collaboration for change

Cities play a crucial role in fighting climate change, and collaboration among cities, companies, and locals is necessary to achieve climate neutrality. Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent, emphasised the need to include large emitters in policies and to encourage them to adopt sustainable practices.

“We can and must all include those large emitters in our policies,” she said, going on to highlight that Ghent worked through public pressure, European regulations, and direct cooperation to help ensure that a local steel company will become climate neutral by 2050. Heyse also highlighted the importance of EU regulations in influencing the behaviour of companies.

Cities can and should be the lighthouses of the European Union
— Filipe Araújo

Filipe Araújo, Deputy Mayor of Porto, stressed the need for a commitment from all stakeholders to tackle climate change, including residents and companies. “Cities can and should be the lighthouses of the European Union, to guide people and our national governments by example,” Araújo proclaimed. “Eurocities and the Eurocities Environment Forum are a strong case of success,” he said.

Anni Sinnemäki, Deputy Mayor of Helsinki, concurred, pointing out that Helsinki’s climate ambitions are more advanced than those at the national level. She also emphasised the importance of cities actively pushing for change. “We waited a long time to get a low carbon concrete from the industry, and it didn’t come,” she recalled, “Now that we have started demanding it we’re seeing change.”

We need faster permitting
— Walburga Hemetsberger

Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO at SolarPower Europe joined other participants in highlighting issues slowing progress in renewable energies. “We need more and modernised grids, and we need faster permitting,” Hemetsberger insisted. She also highlighted the potential for cities to invest in renewables and sell excess power to businesses.

Serious concerns

Cities acknowledge the need for collaboration between local, national and European level to effectively tackle the energy and climate crises. Yet cities gathered at the Environment Forum expressed some serious concerns about the state of this collaboration.

While the need to involve and consult cities may be becoming more recognised, André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities, noted a tendency for this progress to be left by the wayside during crises where things must be done quickly. “You don’t lose time by involving cities; you save time – because when cities are not involved in deciding, implementation will be slower,” Sobczak insisted.

You don’t lose time by involving cities
— André Sobczak

Cities also expressed concerns about ideological divisions between local and national governments in some member states that slow progress away from fossil fuels, underpinning the need for stronger collaboration between the European and local level to effectively implement EU goals. It was noted, however, that across Europe there is wide social and economic divergence among cities and that EU policy needs to take this into account.

Regarding the divisions between the local, regional and national level, Deputy Mayor of Matosinhos, Manuela Alvares pointed out that these are largely illusory from a systsems point of view. Cities and regions, she said, “are today urban systems that complement each other not limiting themselves to municipal borders, but extending their territorial intervention far beyond their urban limits.” Therefore, sharing a common vision across these levels and boundaries, “embodied in a broad and ambitious project that addresses several dimensions of sustainable development,” she said, “will be essential for promoting sustainable communities”

Despite often poor engagement with municipalities on the part of member states regarding the EU Recovery and Resilience Fund, some cities are finding this a great boon for their sustainable measures. However, the combination of the energy crisis and runaway inflation has been extremely hard on their budgets, and more support from the EU at the local level is badly needed.

Cities asked the Commission to take whatever steps to ensure engagement between member states and municipalities on the EU Recovery and Resilience Funds and other funding streams while respecting the principle of subsidiarity. Benchmarking and feedback exercises for the national level on local responses to Recovery Fund spending were suggested as potential avenues for this.

A major issue slowing the energy transition is subsidies provided at the national level for gas and other fossil fuels. Cities implored European Commission representatives present at the Eurocities Environment Forum to act to prevent the national government from actively slowing local efforts towards sustainability with such counterintuitive policies and even to develop a European approach to moving away from gas.

Cities acknowledge positive measures by regional and national governments to tackle the energy crisis but point to inconsistencies in these approaches. For example, non-progressive approaches to the energy crisis, like removing VAT from energy, can be effective stop-gap solutions, but in the long term can lead to a deepening economic divide. In another example, a regional government increased funds for cities to plant trees but also changed the regulations so that it became much easier for trees to be cut down, resulting in marginal gains overall.

National programmes are often not sufficiently targeted or adapted for different groups and individuals, something that cities are uniquely positioned to manage well. For these reasons and others, local governments insisted that it is essential for them not just to receive funding but also to have a real role in regional, national and EU policy making.

Despite the good work of cities, said Anna Lisa Boni, Deputy Mayor of Bologna, “they need their member states to heavily act now, namely through the deployment of smart incentives and decreased limitations linked to architectural protection.”

Tackling the crisis

One example that was presented of the essential work of cities in tackling the energy crisis was the system of ‘energy bonuses,’ money given to local people and businesses to help them pay unmanageable energy bills.

Cities have seen that not just their most vulnerable households but also students and people in employment are finding it necessary to avail themselves of such assistance. Local governments see the energy crisis as a social crisis and an economic crisis, with many people pushed into precarious circumstances and a lot of businesses that managed to struggle through the Covid pandemic are now finally being forced to close down due to energy prices.

Another popular measure is working directly with local people to help them better understand how they can save energy in the short and long term, using information campaigns and one-stop-shops where advisors address their particular situations. Some cities, including Ghent, even go as far as providing loans for renovations or helping people find contractors to carry out the work. Many cities provided such services before the crisis, but demand has increased enormously, and they have responded by boosting availability.

Local budgets are also strained under the energy crisis due to the huge bills that they are receiving from their municipal buildings and other public property, sometimes up by €10 to €20 million or more. They are tackling this with policies such as reducing the temperatures in their buildings by just one degree, a measure which has achieved 8-10% savings.

Cities have also saved huge amounts by dimming streetlights during certain times or turning them on slightly later. When such ideas were initially suggested, there was a lot of scepticism and resistance, but the energy crisis has provided a good opportunity to bring them through without contestation.

Local authorities are also fast-tracking planning processes for renewables, for example, solar panels on roofs, though many would like to see the EU move to cut bureaucracy and push for more streamlined approaches across the bloc.

Nonetheless, an enduring challenge that cities are facing in relation to the energy crisis is engaging with cultural heritage, from keeping heritage buildings heated to finding ways to make them sustainable when typical measures, such as solar panels, may not be permitted.

In general, municipalities acknowledged that the energy crisis has had at least one positive effect: it has forced a speed-up in the transition to sustainable energy, hammering home the importance of such measures for social cohesion, environmental protection and geopolitical independence.

The Russian war in Ukraine has also deepened local people’s understanding of the geopolitical importance of energy independence through sustainable measures, making them more open to ideas that some were previously uninterested in or resistant to.

Driving innovation

Participants also emphasised the role of cities in fostering sustainable technology and innovation in companies to reduce emissions. “We also provide budget for networking, seed funding for sustainable ideas, and much more,” Heyse said of Ghent’s efforts.

Araújo stressed the efficacy of measures like the Porto Climate Pact, through which companies and other organisations can sign up to ambitious emissions targets. “This is the kind of commitment we need to push for,” he said, “because we can’t do it alone.”

We can’t do it alone
— Filipe Araújo

Daan Schalck, CEO at North Sea Port Authority, was quick to second these assertions, pointing to the success of the collaboration between the North Sea Port Authority and Ghent in defining and reaching sustainability goals, for example, by reusing waste heat from the port for new housing.

However, participants agreed that there was a need to adjust regulations across Europe to ensure that locally generated renewable power could be sold back to the grid by the people and companies generating it.

Jobs and skills

The transition to renewable energy and a more sustainable future is creating new jobs, which will require new skills. This trend is likely to continue, with cities playing a major role. Investing in renewables, said Hemetsberger, can also help industries become more competitive in the global race by producing products much more cheaply as they are not burdened by energy costs. The transition can also help municipalities reduce bills and support local businesses.

We need to show that it’s a good perspective to graduate from [vocational] school
— Mariusz Skiba

Mariusz Skiba, Deputy Mayor of Katowice, spoke of the transformation in Poland, where his city has seen institutions designed to offer lessons to coal miners become centres for educating people working in green tech.

He advocated for better communication locally around the importance of vocational education, “We need to show that it’s a good perspective to graduate from this kind of school,” he said. Hemetsberger pointed out that Poland is already the number one country for solar jobs and the third country for new solar installations.

Eero Ailo, Adviser in Energy Transition and Local Governance at the European Commission’s DG Energy, explained that the Commission is setting up Net-Zero Energy Universities to help with skilling, and there is a focus on supporting or creating a more significant manufacturing base in Europe, be it batteries, biomethane, or green technologies. The Commission also wants to extend support to sustainable manufacturing in Europe.

Attracting international talent is also part of the picture, and Katowice has even opened an office in San Francisco to do just that, as well as working with large companies like IBM to drive investors to Katowice. This, in turn, creates job opportunities for the local population, and the city benefits from a more robust economy.

Cities and the EU

Cities would like to see energy agencies that specialise in giving energy-saving advice to local people taken up as a topic at EU level, with the formulation of standard approaches and provision of technical assistance.

While European funds and projects are already used by local governments to create or bolster such agencies, many find it difficult to ensure stability in these services, which is very important for effective delivery. Therefore, they called for an EU-level focus on maintaining such agencies in the long term, which is very important for planning and communicating with locals.

By far, the greatest barrier that cities identified was their staffing capacity. “The local level has been massacred by austerity. Even when we have EU funding, there are fiscal regulations that can make it difficult for us to employ more people,” lamented one city representative. For this reason, municipalities stressed the importance of combining EU finding with technical assistance that will ensure such funding can be used to maximal effect.

The local level has been massacred by austerity.
— Participating city

On the other hand, among their strengths are the huge amounts of money that they can leverage through social and environmental procurement, something for which they need more leeway at the local level. Currently, procurement rules make it difficult for cities to include the social and environmental criteria they would like in their tendering, for example, by looking for shorter and more environmental supply chains for food.

Ailo discussed the Commission’s efforts to create investor certainty by setting clear renewable energy goals and supporting the manufacturing of green technologies. Ailo also pointed to several European initiatives that will also help to drive this shift. He gave the examples of the Net Zero Industry Act, a proposal for a regulation establishing a framework of measures for strengthening Europe’s net-zero technology manufacturing ecosystem.

There is a willingness in cities to do more and go faster than national level
— André Sobczak

Sobczak underscored that “There is a willingness in cities to do more and go faster than the national level.” He pointed to the European elections next year and stressed that cities are well placed to help the European institutions to communicate better to people about the importance of the EU for collaborations like those around the energy crisis. He warned of a perceived recentralisation of power away from cities during crisis and emphasised the need for clear action to quash this perception.

A new policy context

New European Policy, such as the Fit for 55 package and the European Green Deal will create opportunities for cities working with industry for a sustainable future. Claire Dupont, Professor of European and International Governance at Ghent University and Chair of the European Environment Agency’s Scientific Committee, highlighted that while the EU has achieved a consistent downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions, current policies are inadequate in achieving the 2030 and 2050 targets.

Industrial policy has to be socially just and climate neutral
— Claire Dupont

Despite the importance of radical measures to reach these targets, Dupont warned that it is possible for measures which target climate to have adverse effects in other areas. Thus, she emphasised the importance of a fair and holistic approach to climate policies, which also take into account the protection of biodiversity.

She insists that cities can make a significant contribution to leaving no one behind, which is one of the biggest challenges faced by the EU. As she put it, “Industrial policy has to be socially just and climate neutral.”

Milan Elkerbout, Research Fellow and Head of the climate policy programme at the Centre for European Policy Studies, underscored the importance of the Green Deal Industrial Plan in the European Policy context.

Like Dupont, Elkerbout warned emissions in the industry will need to decline rapidly. European policy is working to incentivise this, he said, through mechanisms like the ‘carbon border adjustment,’ which is effectively an EU border tax but one that will incentivise external countries to reduce their emissions while avoiding a situation where the costs of becoming carbon neutral will make European industry less competitive.

Elkerbout also flagged the Net Zero Industry Act as having “quite radical ideas” on streamlining administrative processes, making it easier to access finance, and speeding up permitting. This, he said, would be necessary to compete with the US.

The US has very deep pockets
— Milan Elkerbout

Despite US climate policy having been “frankly ridiculous for quite some time,” Elkerbout said, they have something which the EU does not: “The US has very deep pockets, and they’re throwing a lot of money at clean technologies.” The US, he said, is better than the EU at “giving very clear financial incentives that do not involve a lot of red tape,” a factor which may lure green innovators away from the EU.

By contrast, according to Elkerbout, though European industrial policy makes a lot of funding available, it comes in the form of “hidden pots of money that are not necessarily easy to access,” requiring burdensome administrative processes. He, therefore, highlighted the need for greater expertise in local governments regarding funding opportunities.

Coordination between different sectors, said Elkerbout, is crucial in European industrial policy, for example, when residual heat from one sector is used by another or when CO2 captured by one party could corrode a pipeline used by another. “The local level,” he said, “can play a vital role in coordinating such efforts”.

Nourishing sustainability

Cities around the world are working to reduce meat consumption and shift to a more sustainable protein system that benefits both the planet and human health. However, achieving this transition requires a systemic approach and collaboration with different actors, including the private sector.

During the Eurocities Environment Forum, food was one of the areas of collaboration that cities focused on, with many sharing good examples, as well as visiting sites in Ghent where such collaboration occurs.

Ghent is a city that has been focusing on food strategy since 2013, under the banner of ‘Gent en Garde.’ In 2009, the city launched the ‘Thursday Veggie Day’ campaign, encouraging local people to eat vegetarian at least one day a week. Building on the success of this campaign, the city expanded its efforts to include both the production and consumption sides of the food system, launching the ‘Ghent Green Bowl’ protein strategy in 2021. The goal of this strategy is to achieve a climate-neutral food supply chain by 2050, and it includes several short-term goals, such as shifting the consumption ratio of animal vs. plant and alternative proteins to 40% / 60% by 2030.

One of the key challenges in achieving a protein transition is collaborating with different actors, especially the private sector. In Ghent, supermarkets play a crucial role in the food system, as 80% of food is purchased there. Carrefour, for instance, has been collaborating with Ghent and working with local producers to set up a new system.

This prioritises local food, and producers must be located within a maximum distance of 40 km from the shop and not employ more than ten people. There is direct contact between the individual shop and the producer, and the producer asks for a price, which Carrefour can either accept or not, but cannot negotiate. Additionally, to avoid becoming over-reliant on one buyer, producers are allowed to sell a maximum of 25% of their production to Carrefour.

Supermarkets and food service providers can benefit from collaborating with plant-based food companies by diversifying their product offerings and meeting the growing demand for sustainable and healthy food.

A sustainable district

Another good example of collaboration with industry for sustainability that visitors were able to engage with is Ghent’s new development, De Nieuwe Dokken, a sustainable residential area on the Schipperskaai. The project features about 400 homes, a school, a daycare centre, and a sports hall. However, what makes this development unique is the innovative system that closes and connects energy, water, and waste cycles.

The system begins with the collection of ‘black’ wastewater from the toilets, which is then sent to a digester along with kitchen waste. This produces biogas, which is converted into heat and electricity. Nutrients are recovered from the residual product of the fermentation, which can be used as fertilizer for the green zones. The system is operated by the sustainability cooperative DuCoop, in which participate the project developer, Farys, the investor Clean Energy Innovative Projects, and full engagement from the residents.

Heat is also recovered from the ‘grey wastewater’ from showers after purification. These two processes provide approximately one-third of the heat demand of the buildings. The remaining two-thirds are supplied by residual heat from a neighbouring company, Christeyns. This heat is channelled into a local heat network, which distributes it throughout the new district. The purified grey water from the housing is used as an input for the processes of Christeyns, meaning that it demands less water that could otherwise be used for drinking.

The project on the Schipperskaai was the result of a public-private partnership in which the private project developer had to meet specific sustainability requirements set by the city. The developers were asked to complete the Ghent sustainability meter for urban projects, with a high total score implying that the project’s sustainability was well above the minimum required by regulations.

De Nieuwe Dokken is an exemplary project in terms of sustainability and shows that major new residential developments have the potential to make a significant contribution to achieving climate neutrality. The innovative system that closes and connects energy, water, and waste cycles is an excellent example of how to create a circular economy in a residential area. The involvement of private investors and residents in the sustainability cooperative demonstrates the potential for sustainable development to be financially viable while remaining socially inclusive.

Future success

The enormous potential of cities for creating a Europe that no longer relies on fossil fuels, and the importance of this endeavour, was stressed by Matthias de Clercq, Mayor of Ghent, echoing the well known quote of climate activists that ‘there is no Planet B.’ Mayor de Clercq spoke of Ghent’s tireless work on the energy crisis and sounded a hopeful note for the transition ahead.

There is no Planet B
— Matthais de Clercq

The cities engaged in the Eurocities Environment Forum each had their own story to tell of their progress towards a more sustainable future, aware as they each remain that there is ‘no City B’ either.


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer