Supporting cities to Net Zero

An often-repeated slogan holds that the fight against climate change will be won or lost in cities. Cities drive many pioneering solutions at the local level; however, they face a number of challenges in advancing the progress on climate. The new EU mission Net Zero Cities has the potential to advance their role in the ecological transition but does not come without its challenges.

The new EU Net Zero Cities Mission is a vital part of the European Green Deal, but to successfully drive the ecological transition it must address some key challenges. Cities account for more than 70% of CO2 emissions and use 70% of the world’s resources. In the EU they are also home to 75% of its citizens. Cities are thus driving climate change and ecological degradation well beyond their boundaries. Transforming the way cities operate, consume resources and produce carbon emissions is therefore crucial in addressing the climate crisis and ensuring a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Several examples of city-level sustainability policy innovation are springing up. Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cambridge, and many other cities have for example been implementing the ‘doughnut’ model developed by Kate Raworth. These policies seek not only to mitigate climate change but also to build better, more liveable, healthier cities. Cities are pioneering new approaches also outside of the EU. For example, Portland, in the United States, has been testing a strategy to reduce the emissions also beyond its borders, aiming to address the entire value chains of products and services its residents consume.

Despite such local-level innovations, a number of challenges have emerged. Cities have been hampered in their efforts by a lack of coordination with different levels of government, a lack of resources, and national and EU policy which does not fully support, and often negatively impacts their efforts at decarbonisation.

Many cities face barriers to even implementing basic climate planning and policies. IEEP and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) looked last year at the barriers to Polish cities implementing ambitious climate policy and found that cities may have ambitions but lack capacity and resources. Moreover, they are encumbered by a complicated administrative set up which is not well suited to long term climate planning. At that time, we recommended that the EU should engage more directly with cities to unlock their potential, and it seems that Commission has responded with a promising initiative.

The Net Zero Cities Mission to help 112 cities reach climate neutrality by 2030 is a critical step in both European climate and urban policy. A Horizon 2020 project has been established to support this mission through the provision of new and existing tools, resources and expertise that be developed and promoted into a one-stop platform accessible to all cities through an online portal. The project has the potential to help the cities both in terms of knowledge sharing and capacity building.

Moreover, it can crucially give some political push both within the Commission, in terms of unlocking resources and prioritisation, and inter-governmentally, as Member States hopefully come on board to support the effort to decarbonise more cities. It can hopefully allow cities in less ambitious Member States to push their agendas and emissions cuts forward as it unlocks solutions for these cities.

Of course, this mission is just a first step in the process. Transitioning to net-zero by 2030 entails a number of challenges, such as accessing sufficient resources, ensuring participatory stakeholder engagement, addressing emissions beyond their borders and collaborating with the national governments. Notably, cities will still need very significant investment and funding to meet the costs of reaching climate neutrality. Hopefully, the project can help to unlock this funding, but the funding within the project itself is only very limited compared to the estimated 1 billion euro cost per city of 100,000 (based on €10,000/citizen).

As part of the Net Zero Cities Mission, cities are tasked with developing the Climate City Contracts putting forward their local strategies to reach net zero by 2030. However, the scope of the project is based only on carbon emissions within their geographical boundaries, effectively addressing only a portion of their total emissions. This overlooks a crucial source of cities’ emissions – the consumption of goods and services imported from beyond the city’s borders. This will thus remain an important next step to address between cities and other levels of government, highlighting the importance of multi-level governance and an integrated approach to the policy framework. Efforts in agriculture and the circular economy will be particularly important to speed up.

That is why one of the goals of the project is to analyse and address regulatory barriers at the regional, national, or EU level to unlock solutions to these difficult challenges in a way that allows cities to reach their goals on time. IEEP will take a leading role in this process within the project to help cities overcome the current structural, institutional and cultural barriers they face.

Photo by Ugur Arpaci on Unsplash