Renewing the energy debate in cities

29 May 2023

While pressure on energy markets appears to be lower than one year ago, following the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine, and as media attention declines, cities are still faced with the long-term consequences of the energy crisis and the need to better plan ahead for the next winters.

In turn, this has put an accelerator on the energy transition that was already underway. In one year, many cities have taken strong steps along this path, as well as making headway on other urban challenges, such as energy poverty.

In terms of energy policy, cities have taken various actions, such as reducing heating by as little as 1°C in public buildings to decrease energy bills; reinforcing their provision of information to people on how to save energy, read energy bills and install their own renewable energy sources; and coordinating their actions with neighbourhood and district-level organisations in order to distribute the right information to people who need it.

In fact, as was shared by city politicians during a closed debate during the recent Eurocities Environment Forum, many cities were overwhelmed with requests for good information on energy practices, and many hired new staff to help people facing high energy bills.

When it comes to energy poverty, cities have found it necessary to award bonuses to help pay for energy for groups that were not previously considered ‘energy poor’, such as students and even many people currently employed.

However, to bring the clean energy transition to the appropriate scale, in line with the objectives of the Green Deal and the Fit for 55 packages, all levels of government need to be aligned and incentives need to be set at national level as well. Torpedoing renewable energy legislation and allowing some fossil fuel subsidies to continue can put a break on cities’ actions to scale up clean energy and phase out fossil fuel sources, including gas.

Local pathways to collaborate with industry

An open political debate focused on how cities can collaborate with industry to achieve local energy transition and climate neutrality, including through partnerships to develop skills, infrastructure and financial opportunities.

Industry, especially maritime and airports, can sometimes represent the largest sources of emissions within the territory of a city, without being under the direct remit of the municipal government, complicating ambitions to become climate neutral.

This is why, for a city like Ghent, which hosted the Eurocities Environment Forum, and has already made great strides towards becoming climate neutral, “the large emitters were the elephant in the room,” according to Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent.

By working with a local steel production plant, located in the harbour, and with an ambition to keep jobs in the area, the city helped the plant develop an ambitious climate plan. This includes a pilot plan for carbon capture, using the carbon to make ethanol, which is then used as a raw material in the chemical industry, adding also to the circular economy.

One of the key pillars of making the recently launched Green Deal Industrial Plan a success, is skills, which is why Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of SolarPower Europe elaborated on plans to boost the attractiveness of the solar industry. Some cities are already leading the way; for example, the first solar school of France recently opened in the city of Marseille to train future solar professionals from the age of 15.

According to Eero Ailio from the European Commission, reskilling policies can drive innovation in the renewables sector, which may still be hampered by current legislation. Innovation Regulatory Sandboxes, which are part of the new Net-Zero Industry Act, can be a good method to test new technologies across national, regional and local levels of government under more flexible conditions.

Collaboration with industry is also critical to drive the transition from a coal based to a service and IT oriented economy – a strategy currently pursued by the city of Katowice. Working beyond the city boundaries and with local entrepreneurs is a critical success factor to attract skills in new economic sectors, according to Deputy Mayor of Katowice Mariusz Skiba.

In line with the example of Ghent above, for cities this must be done in a socially fair way. Daan Schalck, CEO of North Sea Port Authority, elaborated on the plan for the port to become climate neutral by 2050, while sticking to one overriding goal: to keep the industry and jobs where it is; which is partly for geostrategic reasons, but also because steel made elsewhere and imported is unlikely to match these goals.

Anni Sinnemäki, Deputy Mayor of city of Helsinki, pointed to the intricacies of cities that aim to decarbonise, while at the same time still growing, meaning that in Helsinki, for example, new office space and transport networks are being constructed to accommodate more people.

With this in mind, Sinnemäki explained that one of the focuses for collaborations with industry in her city is with the construction sector, such as the concrete industry, and one project Helsinki is focussed on is the move to guide the construction sector towards rules that set the target value for the lifecycle carbon footprint of a building.

It’s clear that the efforts needed to attain climate neutrality are multi-layered. In his closing remarks, Bart Somers, Mayor of Mechelen, suggested that one outcome of the Russian war in Ukraine could be that climate actions, local and national economics and geopolitics were all aligned.

“We know that investing in green energy, investing in a climate neutral economy, makes us independent from dictators, helps to save the planet, and adds welfare to our continent,” he said.

Doing this needs such alignment, and especially locally where networks can be created with industry and others.

Watch the full open debate here:

The Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible with mayors and cities on board.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer