Cities are at the heart of the European Green Deal
The European Green Deal is here to stay. It aims to bring about long-term systemic change in which economic growth can take place while achieving climate neutrality. To this end, this comprehensive plan proposes to reduce climate emissions by 50% by 2030 and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
Some have called the presentation of the European Green Deal a historic moment, but it remains to be seen whether it is as ambitious, multidisciplinary and inclusive as its proponents suggest. However, it will only be possible if actors at all levels are included in achieving climate neutrality, most important cities.
Cities account for 75% of the EU population, 70% of jobs and concentrate 85% of EU GDP on their streets. While they are the main generators of pollution, they are also the main actors in the fight against climate change: together with regional authorities they account for 70% of climate mitigation actions and 90% of climate adaptation measures . Their commitment has also been seen through lobbying action. Cities have lobbied to reduce climate emissions by 2030 by 60% instead of 50%. 58 of the Eurocities network members have called on EU institutions to support leading cities which aim at reducing carbon emissions by 65% in 2030.
The case for a more urban European Green Deal
There are several arguments why the inclusion of cities should be a key element of the European Green Deal.
First of all, environmental impacts are very place-specific in nature. Following Hannah Abdullah, many of the vulnerabilities have a local character and so can only be tackled by bottom-up responses Since the EDG follows a strategy of complementary goals and relationships as the SDG does, European institutions could replicate the way in which cities have been included in the latter as one of the main spaces for action and implementation.
Secondly, there is a need for a just transition to respond to this challenge. Climate protection measures have to be able to eliminate inequalities. The Commission has already recognised that not all Member States, cities and regions are starting from the same point. In the global competition for the attraction of technological and financial capital, the already considerable gap between the centre and the periphery cannot continue to widen. The shift towards a regenerated paradigm based on environmental sustainability and economic growth must be redirected so as not to deepen the wound of economic and social reality that has already led some citizens to a sense of frustration and anger, as Pau Solanilla expresses.
Thirdly and connecting back with second argument, cities have become important centres of expertise for policy implementation on both inequality and sustainability, thanks in part to their cooperation at the supranational level. Furthermore, even in situations where climate protection measures are not pursued at the national level, cities are filling important gaps. The Pact of Free Cities between Budapest, Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava is an example of cities connecting with one another to take joint action and develop joint projects. In the words of the former mayor of Toronto and director of International Diplomacy at the C40 Cities network, David Miller: “While nations talk, cities act”.
More than just intention
The responses of the Commission and the different EU institutions seem to be along these lines. The Commission already has several programmes in place and plans for the Just Transition Mechanism to be reinforced in response to the multifaceted crisis generated by the pandemic. The Committee of the Regions launched the new “Green Deal Going Local” Working Group in June 2020. However, important constraints remain. Priscilla Cisneros and Angela Falconer highlight the difficulty in accessing these funds, especially when there are political divergences between different national scales. Cities are further limited by the budgetary constraint requiring 45% or more of the project to be co-financed by the cities themselves to access EU funds or the lack of administrative and technical knowledge to apply for EU funding opportunities, especially for medium or small cities.
For the European Green Deal to go beyond the mere classification of a new economic plan and to achieve its purpose of “Europe’s man on the moon moment“, it is necessary to include cities and regions as key elements in the realisation of the plans. Reducing inequalities and achieving climate neutrality are challenges that can hardly be tackled separately, and therefore not only macroeconomic efforts and investments are needed to address them jointly and comprehensively. The EU and all member states must recognise that this will require action at smaller scale levels. It is the cities that are capable of transforming behaviour and consumption while empowering citizens through a closer, multi-level governance system. As the major of Seville, Spain, Juan Espadas, put it so powerfully: “The European Green Deal will be local or it will not be”.