The climate change imperative has put the spotlight on Europe's cities, which are home to 80% of Europeans and consume a disproportionate share of natural resources relative to their surface area. 

Overview

The European Commission considers cities to be at the heart of EU sustainable development efforts (EurActiv 13/06/07). It January 2006, it launched a 'Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment'. 

The strategy, one of seven thematic strategies in the Commission's 6th Environment Action Programme (6th EAP), is limited in scope since the EU does not have direct competence in urban affairs. Nonetheless, EU sectoral policies in the areas of transport, environment and social affairs can have a significant impact on cities. 

EU ministers responsible for urban and spatial development have also attempted to lay the foundations for a European urban policy with the signature on 24 May 2007 of the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities (EurActiv 24/05/07). And in January 2008, nearly 100 mayors from across Europe signed up to a Commission-backed Covenant of Mayors, which consists of a commitment by the cities' leaders to go beyond the EU's own stated aim of slashing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020.

Issues

A mixed picutre

There are wide disparities between European cities in terms of environmental sustainability. London, for example, stands out for engaging in an ambitious climate change programme independent of UK government efforts. Other European capitals and urban centres, however, lag far behind.

What's more, sustainability is measured not only in environmental but also in social and economic terms.

In late September 2008, the Commission released the results of an 'urban audit' of European cities. Measuring everything from housing, health and crime to environment and climate-related issues, the audit revealed large disparities in the quality of urban life across Europe (EurActiv 24/09/08).

Powering cities

With the exception of Warsaw and other cities in the EU's newest member states, which rely on district-based power facilities, most of Europe's urban areas are dependent on electricity that is produced by large power plants and fed 'one way' over long distances into households via large networks of power grids.

This system is increasingly attracting criticism for being wasteful as a result of significant efficiency losses during the transport of electricity as well as the fact that many buildings and households require urgent efficiency upgrades. 

In addition to improving insulation and taking other measures to reduce energy waste in buildings (see EurActiv LinksDossier on green buildings), there are also growing calls for a transformation of the way in which power is generated and distributed, whereby buildings become both electricity producers and consumers. 

This vision of 'microgeneration' or decentralised generation is reflected in the Parliament's first reading report in response to the Commission's 23 January proposal for ambitious renewable energy legislation (see EurActiv LinksDossier).

Waste not, want not

Using the waste produced by city dwellers for power and heat generation is the way to deal with energy demand and waste management concerns in one fell swoop, according to London's former deputy mayor Nicky Gavron, who spoke to EurActiv in July 2007 about a variety of city-related sustainability issues (EurActiv 10/07/07).

But this vision is still far from a reality in London and elsewhere. Recycling levels vary widely from one city to another. Cities such as Dresden and Frankfurt am Main recycle almost 80% of their waste, while Brussels incinerates more than 90% and around a third of EU cities use open landfills for more than 80% of their waste, according to the Commission's urban audit.

Part of the problem, say green groups, are differing national legislative frameworks for dealing with waste. Efforts to impose binding waste prevention targets on EU member states failed to meet the approval of a majority of MEPs, who voted on the file in June 2008 (EurActiv 18/06/08). 

Sitting dry

Clean and reliable water provision is also a growing concern for many cities, particularly in Europe's Mediterranean basin, where city dwellers must compete with farmers for access to freshwater. 

Much like in the area of waste management, the EU lacks a harmonised approach to water policy. Some member states, like Germany, impose strict water pricing and metering measures, while other member states do not use pricing policies at all (see EurActiv LinksDossier on EU freshwater policies).

The Commission has recommended greater use of water pricing as a means to reduce water waste, but environmental groups say that even if urban dwellers can be encouraged to save water, there are few incentives to make farmers use water more efficiently (EurActiv 18/07/07).

Getting around

Many European cities are suffering from congestion and other nuisances such as high levels of pollution, noise and accidents, largely caused by excessive use of private vehicles. 

75% of the journeys undertaken in metropolitan areas are done by car, according to the Commission. Total kilometres travelled in EU urban areas are expected to increase by 40% between 1995 and 2030, with significant consequences for the health and quality of life of city-dwellers and the economic performance of the cities themselves. 

In September 2007, the Commission outlined a new strategy that sets out a wide range of potential solutions and areas where the EU could take action to tackle growing congestion, air pollution and safety problems in Europe's cities (see EurActiv LinksDossier on urban transport).

Positions

"What we need is a Europe looking out towards the world and towards the future, open, sharing and united. Today's uncertain economic situation makes this more necessary than ever. The regions and cities of Europe have a key role to play in achieving our aims", EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in a 6 October speech during the European Week of Regions and Cities 2008.

"The battle for sustainable development will almost certainly be decided in cities […] We need cities in good shape, wisely using their resources in an innovative and sustainable way, cities for all, for us today and for future generations," according to EU Regional Policy Commissioner Danuta Hübner.

Hungarian Socialist MEP Gyula Hegyi, the author of Parliament's report on the Commission's thematic strategy on the urban environment, regrets that "as a group, citizens living in cities are not targeted properly by the [EU's] funds," citing concerns about excessive EU budgetary resources being spent on agriculture and regional infrastructure projects.

Hegyi also considers transport pollution as one of the most important challenges to sustainability in cities (see EurActiv's 18/05/08 interview with the MEP).

In his report on EU renewable energy legislation, Luxembourg's Green MEP Claude Turmes is calling for EU funds to support "a strategic alliance with progressive cities and regions for a 'bottom up' deployment of the huge diversity of technologies" required to transform the role of buildings in Europe's energy system.

"While national governments still struggle to agree a way forward on global warming, cities, which are responsible for around three quarters of global greenhouse-gas emissions, are today demonstrating the leadership and decisive action necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change," according to London's former mayor Ken Livingstone, who pushed through a transport congestion charge in London during his time in office. 

Eurocities, the network of major European cities, publishes reports and position papers on various aspects related to urban issues in the EU context. In its June 2008 declaration on climate change, the organisation affirms that "the local level has an essential role to play in the fight against climate change and therefore cities are crucial partners, in coordination with the EU institutions and the member states".

Timeline

  • Jan. 2006: Commission launches 'Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment';
  • 24 May 2007: Adoption of Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities;
  • Dec. 2008: Parliament plenary vote on draft renewables directive;
  • 2009: Mid-term review of EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive;
  • Sept. 2009: Commission report on the state of European cities.