The European Green Deal is the EU’s moonshot. Becoming climate neutral by 2050, transforming the economy, and leaving no one behind resets the priorities for the European project and refocuses our attention on Europe’s cities and urban areas.
From Helsinki to Athens, from Lisbon all the way through to Prague, much of the success of the European Green Deal will be determined by European cities. With about 75% of the European population living in urban areas, cities are going to be key in delivering the deal’s objectives while ensuring that it also leads to an improvement of the quality of life.
Over 65% of CO2 emissions come from cities, which is also where 85% of the EU’s GDP is produced.
Cities present both challenges to tackle and opportunities to seize. It is hard to imagine how the EU can become climate neutral by 2050 without them.
European Cities Taking the Lead
A major milestone towards climate neutrality is the goal to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 at the EU level.
Many cities, however, have not waited for the EU to set targets and are already leading the way on their own terms. For instance, 64% of Eurocities members have already committed to become climate neutral by 2050, and at least 15 are prepared to do so before then.
Helsinki, for example, aims to become carbon-neutral by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2035. Stockholm aspires to become fossil-fuel free by 2040. Meanwhile, Copenhagen’s Climate Plan sets out to turn the city carbon-neutral by 2025, including through a transition of its energy supply.
While some Nordic cities are taking the lead in the race to zero emissions, cities across Europe offer a pool of innovative local solutions dealing with the implications of climate change, including fires, flooding, heat islands, air pollution, and health issues.
A new approach to water management in Madrid, a sponge city concept in Berlin, the establishment of green corridors in Utrecht, and a Rain Plan in Paris are just some examples of new solutions undertaken by cities who are adapting to and mitigating climate change. Evidently, European cities are taking a proactive approach to become more resilient and to protect their citizens and infrastructures from future shocks.
The Impact of COVID-19 on the European Green Deal
The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined the limits of what is possible in terms of rapid change in cities. While local public services are stretched beyond limits by the increased need to support people and local business through the crisis, city administrations have also seized the opportunity to enact positive change.
Milan, for example, has spurred a city-wide expansion for cycling and walking. Florence boosted its tram system capacity as well as its safety. Budapest has actively promoted its plethora of lesser known green areas in an attempt to avoid crowds. At a more strategic level, Amsterdam and Brussels are championing doughnut economics as an ambitious framework for recovery, ensuring that their cities respect both social and planetary boundaries going forward.
As the European Commission revamps EU policies to achieve the joint goal of a green and digital transformation for recovery, there is growingrecognition around the need to cooperate with cities.
To illustrate, the recently launched Green City Accord supports signatory cities to progress towards better implementation of EU environmental legislation, improving air quality, reducing noise pollution, and promoting green urban areas.
The Living-in.EU movement sees city authorities shape the digital future in collaboration with EU policy makers by developing a framework that scales up effective digital solutions across Europe.
Additionally, a group of high-level experts have put forward a proposal Mission for 100 Climate Neutral cities in the EU by 2030. Collectively, these are all positive examples of collaboration that are moving Europe and its cities in the right direction.
Still, Europe’s transformation towards a greener and socially equitable future will require a more ambitious approach when it comes to involving cities as partners in EU policy making and in significant investments.
The transformative power of cities
The EU has boosted its spending power for the coming years with the Next Generation EU recovery plan, which will place 750 billion euros in support of a green, digital, and just transition. This is an unprecedented move in the face of a historically challenging situation.
If investments are channelled towards transformative projects and capacity building in cities and urban areas, there is a real opportunity to deliver benefits for local communities and a more sustainable future for Europe.
Member states are required to consult city authorities in the development of their national recovery plans. They also have to explain how they plan to spend the investments from EU’s recovery and resilience facility. Nevertheless, 70% of the cities who responded to a Eurocities survey in December 2020 had not been consulted yet or had only been involved to a limited extent.
Crucially, if major cities do not get a seat at the table when EU investment decisions are made, the spending priorities are less likely to match the needs on the ground.
To conclude, at the EU level, city authorities should not be seen as lobbyists, but rather as the representatives of European citizens. After all, mayors are elected or appointed locally and are responsible for implementing EU rules.
They have a crucial role in bringing the European project closer to the European people. By working more closely with cities on both policy developments and investment priorities, the European Green Deal stands a much better chance of becoming a reality.
When cities are on board and when their contribution is recognised, Europe’s next generations will be able to benefit from a future resilient recovery, which will in turn make cities healthier, thriving, and more inclusive.