Recovery, Zagreb’s chance to play catch up

15 April 2022

At a time when cities’ sustainable efforts are building upon hard-won gains from previous years, Ivan Ivanković’s ‘we’re not even there yet’ type-of-admission stands out for its boldness.

Zagreb’s Head of Energy & Climate says that the transport sector accounts for 53.9% of his city’s overall carbon footprint. While data shows a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in other sectors, “unfortunately, transport exhausts are constantly on the rise, the number of cars is constantly on the rise,” Ivanković remarks.

For decades, many cities across Europe have been putting vehicle emission reduction at the top of their agenda, whereas Zagreb is yet to adopt its first Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan. If all goes well, the city aims to finally devise one by the end of this year.

A car and tram in Zagreb
Zagreb. Photo by Lovro Pavlicic

But if with crisis come opportunities, post-pandemic recovery funds will be a one-time chance for Croatia and its municipalities to even out differences with fellow EU nations: the country plans a complete renewal to keep up with oldest EU member states and rush to match their climate plans.

Over 40% of the EU-funded Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) in Croatia will be devoted to climate objectives, with €728 million supporting sustainable mobility.

Zagreb already started playing catch up: the city recently completed a full revision of its energy and climate policies to match the EU climate law ambition to reduce 55% of its emissions by 2030.

In an interview with Eurocities, Ivanković reveals why being the new kid in the EU bloc means more pollution, and how post-pandemic funds can be a game-changer for the EU’s youngest member state.


Why does road traffic have such a negative impact on air quality in Zagreb?

We have a huge number of personal vehicles – 82.7% of all registered cars in the city are privately-owned. When you look at the city streets, it’s mostly one person per car. So particulate matter and carbon dioxide levels are constantly increasing, and the situation worsens in the winter, in combination with meteorological factors such as lack of wind. This is affecting residents, their health, and the good image of our city. It’s something that we absolutely must tackle.

We do have a robust public transit system, but it’s not up to par for a 21st-century capital city. We must encourage people to get out of their cars and move to clean, efficient, affordable systems like buses and trams. There’s no running away from it. We need to improve and decarbonise the transport sector, and do so quickly, because the overall cost is simply too large to ignore. Clean transport is definitely one of our top priorities.

A street in Zagreb
A street in Zagreb. Photo by Shiakingkong

Are there any elements worsening this situation?

Indeed. After Croatia joined the EU in 2013, older, energy inefficient vehicles from Western European nations made their way to our country. The market opened up, barriers came down across the border, and that enabled Croatians to import various types of vehicles from other EU countries.

However, due to their low purchasing power and various economic situations, Croatians bought older and more polluting cars, as did people in other Eastern European countries like Romania. When you look at the statistics, cars in Croatia are 14 years old on average.

A tram in Zagreb
A tram in Zagreb. Photo by ArvidO

On top of that, we had diesel gate in 2015 (Volkswagen’s diesel emissions fraud scandal.) So, the EU can ban internal combustion engines by 2030 or 2035, and it’s the right move, of course, for the climate and the air. Clear rules will also allow car manufacturers to adapt their production and comply with the new standards. But what is the EU going to do with countries like Croatia that have so many old cars? How is it going to support member states like ours that are lagging behind?

Yes, public transport will be part of the solution, along with the introduction of electric cars, hydrogen-powered vehicles and similar sustainable actions. But I also think that countries like Croatia are in for a huge wake-up call because you can’t go from zero to 100 overnight. And of course, it’s a chicken-or-egg situation: is our public transport network sufficient and good enough for people to stop using their cars? Well, maybe it isn’t. We know this and we need to do something about it.

What’s your master plan to clear the air?

The Zagreb city Assembly recently adopted an air protection program for the period 2022-2026 that includes an array of measures to improve urban air quality. With regards to the transport sector, the idea is to drastically improve the public transit system and make it a viable, manageable solution to wean residents off their cars as much as possible.

That means new buses, trams, rearranging our parking system, making improvements to the existing cycling infrastructure, and introducing low-emission zones and automated mobility systems. In short, a holistic traffic and transport management overhaul. The development of the Sustainable Mobility Plan will be a big part of this effort, together with policy coordination activities with the Ministry of Transport, financing from the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021–2027.

Post-Covid recovery plans will then offer a much-needed helping hand, won’t they?

Croatia will receive Resilience and Recovery funds for €6.3 billion – one of the largest amounts of this financial scheme – together with other sources linked to the 2021-2027 Multi-annual Financial Framework. This is a huge opportunity for our country because not only are we the newest member, we are unfortunately also one of the least economically developed.

The cathedral in Zagreb
Photo by: Mtomicphotography

Our plans include a complete overhaul of Zagreb’s bus infrastructure. This will mean a total renewal of our fleet with almost 500 new buses by 2035. We believe that 2035 is a realistic deadline for our public transport operator – Zagreb Electric Tram Ltd. – to achieve the zero-emissions target. It’s reasonable because by then, our sustainable mobility plan will also rely on battery and hydrogen vehicles and benefit from EU-wide CO2 emission standard mandates such as the Clean Vehicle Directive and the upcoming Renewable Energy Directive III. In that respect, 2035 is our North Star, our ‘end game’ for introducing a sustainable public transport infrastructure in Zagreb.

How else are Recovery and Resilience plans helping you to push sustainable reforms in Zagreb?

Post-pandemic recovery schemes are revolutionary compared to all previous initiatives of this type. In its plans, the EU clearly defined what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, by what date, by whom, etc. It stringed together investments and reforms; it was explicit about what it expects and left very little wiggle room. In my view, the message from Brussels is ‘you can’t get the money if you don’t implement the reforms’.

What’s great about the Recovery and Resilience Fund is that it asks states to devote 37% of their spending to environmental reforms and 20% to digital projects. For Croatia, this means that maybe for the first time, the government had to identify concrete problems and solutions to the current state of affairs across various sectors.

A street in Zagreb
Zagreb. Photo by David Boca

Is there anything that you would improve?

There should have been better coordination from the start and city and regional authorities should have been involved in the recovery plans’ early stage. As we step into the implementation phase, we need to be properly supported both at the EU and national levels. You can’t say ‘Here’s the money, go ahead and do what’s expected’. National governments will need to work with local authorities for these plans to work. They already do, to some extent, but I would like this process to be streamlined, more open and inclusive because the success or failure of the Recovery and Resilience Facility’s implementation will affect us all.

The city of Zagreb is still defining its own development strategy which will mirror national plans. Is there anything that you already know?

Part of the solution is getting people on board. That’s usually done via a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy (laughs) through carefully designed policies. Fully renewing our fleet and even introducing a world-class public transit system won’t be enough without meeting people’s needs. One of our first measures will be the introduction of low and zero-emission zones in the city centre; but to do this well, we’ll need to offer alternatives that are safe, clean and affordable. Our plan needs to rely on a combination of measures: cycling, walking, public transport, and other modes of transport. It’s a huge undertaking, but if Zagreb the capital will do this successfully,  it will carve a path for other Croatian cities to follow.

This article is part of a series charting local recovery efforts made by cities all over Europe – cities want #MoreThanRecovery

A digital mobility renaissance in Milan – Eurocities

In Bologna, a recovery in full swing

Cities want more than recovery


Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer