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).
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).
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).
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).