Part of the problem, part of the solution

18 November 2019
​The expectation was formulated simply and clearly. “I want you to be the Greta Thunberg in the Commission”, the Swedish Member of Parliament Jytte Guteland told Frans Timmermans and thus reformulated the candidate’s title as Executive Vice President, European Green Deal.

Greta with a beard? Frans Timmermans seems to be willing to take on the role. In his hearing before the EU Parliament on 8 October he sounded at least like the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist: “We cannot afford to screw up,” Timmermans emphasised the urgency of his mission as Europe’s new climate chief.

More ambitious climate targets for Europe

Timmermans wants to increase the EU’s emissions reduction target for 2030 from currently 40% to 55%, compared to 1990 (in a two-stage approach), and aims to reach climate neutrality in the EU by 2050 the latest.

Within his first hundred days in office, Timmermans promises to present a climate law ensuring the ambitious roadmap. “A big part of my job will be to convince others,” he acknowledged the challenge to get countries like Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary onboard.

While the buy-in of member states is a necessity for a new European climate plan, the key to get it done in practice lies in – cities.

“Cities are key to finding the right solutions”

“Cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe,” says Anna König Jerlmyr, mayor of Stockholm and president of EUROCITIES, the network of major cities in Europe. “That means that cities are part of the problem, but that they are also key to finding the right solutions.”

Many cities have already today committed themselves to more ambitious climate plans than their national governments or the EU. In a EUROCITIES survey, 64% of cities reported they want to be carbon neutral by 2050 the latest, and 29% have an emissions reduction target of at least 55% until 2030 – the level Timmermans is aiming for. “What these cities do should inspire national and European leaders,” says Anna König Jerlmyr.

For example:

  • Amsterdam has set up the Climate Neutral 2050 programme, a roadmap to reduce the city’s dependence on gas, coal and oil and to decrease CO2 emissions by 55% until 2030. Natural gas will be phased out and no longer used to heat buildings in 2050. For this, the city works together with housing corporations, tenants as well as gas grid and district heating operators. Amsterdam is investing in pilot projects like the energy cooperative MeerEnergie that wants to use residual heat from a local science park data centre via a heat network to replace gas.

  • Ljubljana is investing heavily in the energy renovation of public buildings like schools, kindergartens, sport centres and administrative buildings. 48 of those buildings have been part of the city’s energy retrofit project. Heating, ventilation and cooling systems have been modernised, more energy efficient lighting has been installed, facades and roofs have been isolated. The measures were financed in public private partnership and lowered CO2 emissions by more than 3,000 tons each year. Now Ljubljana is set for the next phase which will include 11 additional buildings.

  • Oslo wants to become nearly emission-free by 2030 (95% reduction). To steer towards this goal, the city has introduced a climate budget. Just as a financial budget sets an upper limit for how much money can be spent, the climate budget sets a limit for the release of greenhouse gases. The climate action plan includes the electrification of the transport of goods, a capacity increase of public transport and a higher number of fossil-free construction sites. Oslo measures progress with a climate barometer, updating 14 indicators three times a year.

  • Porto is reducing the climate impact of mobility. To reach its climate targets of 50% reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, the city focuses on the transport sector which accounts for 39 percent of total emissions in Porto. Electric cars and plug-in hybrids replaced 70% of the diesel-powered cars in the municipal fleet. 276 public diesel buses will be replaced with electric and natural gas-powered vehicles. Porto expands the metro network and launched a monthly transport pass for €30; children up to the age of 12 travel free on the regional network, up to 15 free inside the city.

  • Stockholm wants to be fossil-fuel-free and climate positive by 2040. By 2020, emissions will be reduced by 40% from the 1990 baseline. A lot of progress has been made by switching from fossil to renewable fuels for district heating/cooling and improving energy efficiency. The city provides energy advice for private property owners on-site. For municipal buildings, energy efficiency goals have been set and funds for renovation are reserved. New buildings on city-owned land must comply with the passive-house standard. Together with the building industry and academia, a life-cycle analysis tool has been developed for the whole building process to steer towards the most climate efficient solutions.

“I am very proud that many cities have already taken ambitious steps towards net-zero emissions,” says Stockholm’s mayor Anna König Jerlmyr. “But limiting global warming to 1.5°C, the goal of the Paris agreement, requires the involvement of all political levels. It is time that national and European leaders start working for a climate neutral Europe by 2050, together with our cities.”

Mayors want more

Mayors all over Europe agree. A few months ago, they joined forces and sent an open letter, now signed by 328 European mayors, urging EU and national leaders to step up ambitions and “to

  • develop a just and inclusive European long term climate strategy that enhances resilience and ensures emissions in the EU peak by 2020, more than halve by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050;

  • enhance the 2030 EU climate and energy targets and Nationally Determined Contribution to ensure a resilient, rapid and just energy transition in line with the above goals;

  • align the next EU long term budget with this strategy, remove fossil fuel subsidies and mainstream climate action as a priority across all funding programmes; and

  • commit all member states to binding net-zero emissions reduction targets and the above goals.”

Cities are climate leaders – that was one of the messages of Anna König Jerlmyr when she, as president of EUROCITIES, met Frans Timmermans shortly after his hearing in the European Parliament in October. “I believe cities can be your strongest partners in making the European Green Deal a reality,” she told the designated commissioner. “We have the ambitions. We have the experience. And we have the numbers.”

Why cities matter

After all,

  • 75% of Europe’s population live in cities;

  • 85% of Europe’s gross domestic product (GDP) is generated in cities;

  • 80% of Europe’s energy is consumed in cities;

  • around 70% of Europe’s CO2 is emitted in cities.

Cities “can play a central role in delivering on the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement, by developing and implementing ambitious local plans and working with citizens, business and civil society to achieve sustainable change,” as Anna König Jerlmyr and her fellow European mayors wrote in their letter.

“However,” they demanded, “we need an enabling European framework.”

This is where Frans Timmermans and the European Green Deal come in. The ambitions of the future climate commissioner seem to be pretty much in line with what city leaders want. The question is, can he do it? Or is the Green Deal “doomed”, as David Adler and Pawel Wargan predict?

In an opinion piece for Brussels’ media outlet Politico, the coordinators of the cross-partisan initiative ‘Green New Deal for Europe’ argue, Timmermans needed the support of Economy Commissioner Valdis Dombrovski – and “there’s little reason to believe the center-right politician will be eager to embrace the environmental ambition needed to see the Green Deal through.”

Will the Commission listen?

So, will “the Commission’s structural and political constraints” produce “a set of watered-down, piecemeal solutions”, as Adler and Wargan expect? Or will the commissioners, along with national governments, listen to the cities?

“We hope that our leadership will inspire you,” the mayors write in their open letter. “We encourage you to embrace this responsibility, and we, the mayors, will share the task of implementing it, for the benefit of European citizens and the wider world.”