Bologna’s bet on climate neutrality

In the summer of 2019, the European Commission selected Anna Lisa Boni as a member of the expert board tasked with developing a project proposal for the newly founded European Mission of Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities. At the time, Boni was Secretary General of Eurocities. Now, she is a Deputy Mayor in Bologna. “I could never have imagined that three years later, I would find myself testing and implementing it in a city, Bologna,” Boni says. Working directly on the front lines of this mission at a local level, she has confirmed how this bet on climate neutrality represents a “tough, complex, almost impossible but at the same time essential, useful, and motivating path for all cities.”

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in cities is tough, regardless of their size,” Boni says, as it requires a huge effort in terms of cultural change, resource investment, and the capacity for innovation from many public and private entities, as well as from the population. “If we then have to do it in less than eight years, we approach an impossible mission,” Boni explains.

We approach an impossible mission
— Anna Lisa Boni

The mission is complex because it aims to enable a systemic transformation of cities, avoiding the use of only sectoral, vertical, and policy parameters organised in silos. Boni points out, “Almost no part of society today, from politics and institutions, from economics, to finance and research, is able, even if willing, to naturally operate with a systemic approach.”

This approach is necessary to address the growing complexity of the world and the challenges we are facing, but it means breaking away from “business as usual” and questioning the way we are used to doing things. Boni emphasises that truly managing the climate crisis means recognising its complexity, “living with the contradictions and conflicts it generates,” and knowing that simple answers do not exist.

The Mission, defined by the Mission Board as the Mission of 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030 – For and by Citizens, has managed to attract the interest of many cities across Europe. Boni reflects: “Just look at the response level to the expression of interest launched by the European Commission in 2021, with almost 400 cities, including over 30 in Italy, of which then nine were selected.” Through Eurocities’ support to the EU’s NetZeroCities, our network ensures that cities have the information and support system in place to make good on their Mission targets.

Perhaps it is our last opportunity to transform our cities
— Anna Lisa Boni

The cities that applied saw this Mission as an opportunity to strengthen their political and administrative climate action, Boni notes, “And they decided to embark on this adventure knowing that there would be no direct funds available for those selected and that the resources and internal organisation were not up to the challenge.” By the end of 2023, she believes that the mission had proved to be fundamental, useful, and motivating.

The Mission is fundamental for the European Union as it highlights the ambition of cities and the local level. “Here, emissions and consumption are concentrated, but also the capacity to reduce both, to produce clean energy, and to promote normative, social, and technological innovation to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” Boni states.

The European Green Deal, she says, materialises in cities, due to their proximity to residents, through putting legislation into practice and diffusing its principles and messages into the culture through local ecosystems.

The Mission also helps cities to bush their own boundaries, strengthening their direct climate action and their capacity to incentivise and facilitate action by local people and organisations. “All 100 are setting up a climate city contract, federating major public and private institutional players,” Boni points out. This local pact will be clear on the commitments and direct investments, actions, and contributions of all, and can be expanded and renewed every two years.

The mission is motivating too: “Perhaps it is our last opportunity to transform our cities into healthier, safer, child-friendly places, where we can retune with nature and find energy to face the new phase of humanity we have entered,” Boni suggests.

For Bologna, being part of the Mission is more than just a question of climate. It’s about improving economic accessibility to ecological choices, fighting against energy poverty, further democratising cities, and creating narratives that help face this new century of constant emergency.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer