Climate Change: Local Action for Global Results

By Lot van Hooijdonk, deputy mayor of Utrecht for transport and mobility, energy and environment and chair of the EUROCITIES Environment Forum
Winter 2014

As governments have just finished the latest round of negotiations on a new global climate deal in Lima, the minds of many Europeans are on energy security in Europe as much as on greenhouse gases. The only realistic solution to both challenges is to reduce our energy demand and source sustainable energy within the EU, as close to the consumer as possible.

Europe has just taken a step in the right direction by committing to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, with a target of increasing energy efficiency and the share of renewables by 27%. Cities are obvious partners for achieving these goals. It is in urban areas that 80% of Europe's energy is consumed and around three quarters of EU CO2 emissions are generated. And while global negotiations continue, cities are already acting. Almost 6,000 municipalities have signed the Covenant of Mayors, committing to significant emission reductions. Cities are also preparing to reduce emissions through another promising new initiative at global level, the Compact of Mayors. This is an opportunity to show the international community how much we do at local level. As new chair of the EUROCITIES Environment Forum, I would like to build on our network's engagement with the EU institutions. We will continue to provide them with examples of local climate action on the ground, and will support the development of sound energy and climate policies. By exchanging regularly on good city practices, we will help to share effective climate solutions between European cities, and feed local experiences into the development of an EU urban agenda.

Cities are important partners for national governments and the EU in fighting climate change. But citizens are our key partners when it comes to making climate action happen every day. City authorities can provide new and improved bicycle lanes and public transport, but it is up to citizens to use them. We can tell citizens about building insulation, but we must work together with them to install it. As the level of government closest to citizens, we must and we can create good, practical solutions with citizens.

In cities, climate action doesn't just benefit the climate. Climate action can improve citizens' quality of life, and take on other issues at the same time. Transport is a good example. Making it more energy efficient not only lowers CO2 emissions. If we do it right, it also improves air quality and reduces noise. Cycling, for instance, does all of this, and also improves your health. In Utrecht, cycling has become so successful that we are running out of parking space for bikes. That's why we are currently building what may be the world's largest bicycle parking facility, with space for some 12,500 bicycles, and investing in improving our bike lanes. Delivering goods is not always possible by bike, so we introduced the cargo hopper: goods are reloaded from conventional trucks at a hub outside the city and then delivered to the centre on smaller, electric trucks.

Solutions such as these can result in 'smarter cities' through smart management. ICT can help, for instance by facilitating the management of energy demand and supply. We will be most successful if we integrate these new solutions into urban planning, be it for reducing CO2, cleaning up the air or making our streets less congested.

Greening the economy can also create green jobs, linked to renewable energy, retro-fitting of buildings, green vehicles and improved public transport. Many of our cities are working to ensure that these green jobs also benefit those who otherwise find it difficult to access the labour market. Later this year, we will publish a EUROCITIES collection of good practice examples from cities supporting these 'green jobs for social inclusion.

As much as greening is an economic opportunity, financing climate action remains a major issue. The EU and member states need to continue work on financial instruments, such as easily applicable revolving funds. Cities must have direct access to these instruments, in collaboration with the relevant managing authorities. We also need to further roll out instruments making it possible for energy efficiency measures to be paid for with the energy cost savings they generate, notably energy performance contracts. Member states need to adjust their national taxation frameworks to promote more environmentally-friendly solutions, such as renewable energy, and switching to more sustainable transport modes. Taxation should help promote clean vehicles, discourage company cars, and incentivise less-polluting fuels for road vehicles, to reduce not only CO2 emissions but also air pollution.

While we need change, decisions on tax policies must be carefully considered and stable in the longer term to boost investments in sustainable solutions. For instance, unstable renewables subsidies in the Netherlands have made investments in these technologies too uncertain in recent years.

While we have to continue mitigating climate change, we know already that we can't avoid it entirely. We will have to adapt to extreme weather phenomena, be it cloudbursts, storms, heat waves or droughts. Cities, with their dense populations and 'urban heat island' effect of densely built-up areas, face particular challenges. We will continue to develop solutions that make our cities better places to live, such as designing green areas that not only absorb rainwater and help cool the city down, but are also great recreation spaces.

It is true that climate change is a threat, and tackling it needs substantial efforts and investments. But it is also true that if we tackle it the right way, it can be an opportunity. Cities are ready to seize it.