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Cities intent on slashing emissions

Though Europe’s cities have long been committed to averting the worst of climate change by reducing their carbon emissions, the recent energy crisis has deepened the impetus for cities to act. In this and last year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey, climate change and the energy transition were mayors’ number one priority by a wide margin.

Though Europe’s cities have long been committed to averting the worst of climate change by reducing their carbon emissions, the recent energy crisis has deepened the impetus for cities to act. In this and last year’s Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey, climate change and the energy transition were mayors’ number one priority by a wide margin.

The survey also found that 60% of EU cities are transforming short-term responses to the energy crisis into long-term initiatives for energy independence and reduced reliance on fossil fuels . Zagreb is advancing its public transport electrification and cycling infrastructure, while Cluj-Napoca is growing its network of electric charging stations. Meanwhile, Lyon’s energy efficiency plan has become a permanent fixture, including extended district heating and improved public transport systems.

In The Hague, the Resilience Department launched an Energy Crisis Taskforce, a holistic approach to the energy crisis with a focus on long-term resilience. The city’s approach includes streamlined governance to enhance communication and efficiency, and direct community engagement through volunteer energy coaches who educate and assist residents with energy-saving measures. The taskforce’s effort extends to financial support, energy-efficient upgrades, and sustainable technology initiatives for both households and businesses.

Eurocities Pulse 2024

Engaging for action

In making these moves, mayors are responding to the wishes of their residents, with two-thirds of respondents to the Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey stating that their constituency prioritises and demands action on decarbonisation policies. They also see decarbonisation as an opportunity to strengthen and extend collaboration with other local actors . Among the many private players with whom cities collaborate in driving climate neutrality goals, utility companies stood out, with eight out of ten mayors emphasising this collaboration.

One important facet of this collaboration with private service providers, especially utility companies, is data sharing. The data held by such actors is often vital to designing and executing effective decarbonisation policies, but data sharing agreements can be difficult to achieve. In Barcelona, utility companies share data on their infrastructure works with the municipality in exchange for tax deductions.

We know we can’t reach climate neutrality on our own, so our idea is to work with all our partners in society to bring about climate change. The question is how can we convert to new methods of climate-friendly fuel and biomass, without impacting on local businesses and jobs.

– Tristan Riom, Deputy Mayor of Nantes

Cities support
EU climate policy

Two-thirds of mayors see European climate policy as strengthening this collaboration between local administration and local industry and driving innovation, and eight out of ten find European climate policies to be in line with local decarbonisation objectives. Local leaders are looking to Europe to continue supporting ambitious decarbonisation policies, and have flagged it as the top investment area for cities in the next EU budget, as well as highlighting it as the area in which EU funding is expected to make the biggest difference to local policy initiatives over the next five years.

Further capacity building and technical support from the EU to the local level will also clearly be essential in this domain, as half of all respondents to the Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey warned that their cities do not yet have sufficient tools and capacity to meet their climate commitments.

The Nature Restoration Law

Cities have been keen advocates for the Nature Restoration Law, insisting on the role of nature and biodiversity in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. They also see the importance of the Nature Restoration Law in restoring urban ecosystems as key to achieving the EU climate objectives and ensuring a high quality of life for all residents. Despite cities’ keen support, the law has faced challenges throughout the legislative process, and now there are open questions about whether it will come into force, despite having passed through the European Parliament. This is a worrying development for cities, which are strong advocates and important actors for increasing the quantity and quality of nature and have repeatedly advocated for the law.

Enabling change

A shining example of collaboration between the European and local level, as well as local people, the private sector and other organisations, to make strides in climate action is the EU Mission for 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030, which Eurocities supports through its work on the EU NetZeroCities project. Opportunities made available to cities through this initiative include the selection of 53 pilot cities chosen to implement locally tailored innovative actions in areas such as buildings and waste.

Cities like Malmo and Nantes have developed strategies to engage residents and organisations in sustainable practices, with Malmo focusing on shared learning including through living labs on heating and construction, and Nantes organising a carbon-neutral challenge for local people.

For cities not directly involved in the mission, a new programme of activities is about to kick-off, which will include city-to-city exchanges at EU or national level, including a new twinning programme that will pair them with mission cities holding similar challenges and goals in order to share knowledge and best practices for reducing emissions. They will also receive access to the Mission Platform to help build local capacity.

The main problems are the size of the work required, the lack of sufficient funds, and the limited competence of city authorities in urban planning. We need close cooperation and support from the Commission.

– Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz

Top down and bottom up

Cities also take full advantage of enduring EU initiatives such as the Covenant of Mayors, which Eurocities supports the European Commission to deliver. Through the Covenant, mayors commit to ambitious decarbonisation targets and increasing resilience, and get support for these goals through technical assistance, knowledge sharing activities and best practices. Currently running a campaign on decarbonised heating, the Covenant promote s cities like Bilbao, a city once marked by industrial pollution, but now embracing decarbonisation of its heating systems as part of its broader energy strategy.

By prioritising building upgrades and developing district heating networks, Bilbao aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. Its Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan includes a comprehensive vision for a fully electrified heating and cooling system by 2050, to be complemented by a 30% reduction in demand for heating, thanks to building renovations.

As well as those designed by the EU, many EU-wide initiatives are bottom up, conceived and delivered by cities. One such is the Eurocities Lille Call to Action for Low Carbon and More Inclusive Culture, through which local leaders commit to promoting sustainable and inclusive cultural policies across European cities.

In Dresden, the Charter on Culture and Sustainability helps local organisations track and report on the carbon footprint of their cultural events. Glasgow, another early signatory, has committed to creative climate action, giving everyone access to all art forms, ensuring gender parity in local cultural policies, and introducing an Agent of Change, a pioneering new job within the city administration that facilitates radical changes within the local administration.

We involve all the stakeholders, from the suppliers, tenants, municipality… We are working with homeowners, housing departments, and energy providers.

– Ronny Brünler, Smart City Manager, Dresden

Textiles and waste

Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, consuming 1.5 trillion litres of water annually, and causing 20% of global clean water pollution. 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce just 1kg of cotton. Textiles are also becoming an important issue for cities, as people generate more and more textile waste. This leads to 87% of these textiles ending up as waste in landfill or being incinerated at a considerable cost for the local authority.

This is why cities have advocated for an EU-wide polluter-pays principle applied to the textile sector for years. And they have been heard. In 2023, the European Commission proposed a revision of the Waste Framework Directive to include an Extended Producer Responsibility for textiles. The negotiations have been ongoing for a few months, and will resume after the EU elections.

Danger of missing the mark

Despite European support for top-down and bottom-up initiatives, there is also a danger of this EU support and ambition falling short. The EU’s NextGenerationEU recovery funds, aimed at mitigating the socio-economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, presented an excellent opportunity to fund strong local decarbonisation efforts. Unfortunately, the centralisation of the management of the €720 billion fund at the national level has meant that the unique needs of cities were often overlooked. This in turn limited effective use, focusing more on short-term economic recovery rather than long-term sustainable development.

Bureaucratic hurdles and generic funding distributions have further complicated access and use of these funds by cities. A report from Eurocities and the Global Cities Programme at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, emphasised the need for a more inclusive approach that allows cities direct access to funds and greater involvement in planning, aiming to make the recovery efforts more responsive to the diverse needs of Europe’s urban environments as the EU approaches its mid-term review of the spending.

There are also fears locally that the EU may be unwilling to signal its commitment to its 2050 climate neutrality goal by putting strong targets for 2040 in place. Without such intermediary targets, achieving the 2050 goal is extremely unlikely. Mayors from European cities have urged the EU to adopt a minimum 90% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 to maintain global leadership in climate action. Eurocities’ position paper highlights essential asks, such as enhancing direct collaboration between the European Commission and cities, providing targeted financial support, new tools and mechanisms to accompany the most vulnerable groups, and ensuring full implementation of the ‘Fit for 55’ package to anchor Europe in the climate-neutral trajectory.

#GreenDeaOrBust

European cities are at the heart of the European Green Deal as essential partners in achieving climate neutrality and fostering a sustainable future. Cities are adopting transformative measures to address air, noise, and water pollution, reduce road traffic, and increase green spaces, while collaborating with Eurocities and other stakeholders to enhance policy and funding support at the EU level. Recent political shifts and protests underscore the critical need for strong collaboration between the EU and cities to maintain momentum towards the Green Deal’s ambitious goals.

City leaders are translating the Green Deal into effective local action. Cities like Lodz and Guimaraes highlight the practical challenges and innovative solutions being pursued, from revamping urban planning to embracing nature-based solutions and increasing community involvement.

I am proud to say that 97% of our population breathes air that is considered good or very good. Creating a liveable city is our goal, where people can age happily and healthily.

– Paulo Lopes Silva, Deputy Mayor of Guimarães

In Eurocities position paper, cities also call for setting specific emission reduction targets for consumption based emissions, such as through food production and consumer goods, and direct funding to cities for carbon reduction projects which have redistributive effects. These steps are deemed crucial as many cities set more ambitious climate targets than most EU member states and seek more support to achieve climate neutrality.

Despite the obvious urgency of climate action for maintaining resilient societies in cities and across the EU, complex political pressures and competing priorities at national and supranational level can muddy the waters and cripple the coherence of both policy and action.

Cities have been very supportive of the major changes introduced by the European Green Deal and by the long-term trajectory it set towards climate neutrality in many areas. As they progress towards implementation of the deal, they are counting on EU member states – some of whom have already moved to block important Green Deal legislation – to be their allies.

The closeness of mayors to the people that they govern means that politics and pragmatism must align to tackle decarbonisation, the central challenge of our century. A Europe that empowers local leaders will be one that is better able to take the necessary steps to curbing climate change.

It’s very important to be in tune with the problems that our towns and cities and our residents are facing today, which are obviously largely linked to the impact of climate change.

– Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris