European cities must adapt to climate change, EU environment chief says

Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius speaking at an awards ceremony for green European cities in Lahti, Finland [Kira Taylor]

European cities need to adapt as global warming worsens, leading to more floods and fires on the continent, according to the EU’s environment commissioner.

“This summer Europe has seen devastating fires and floods. Our cities need to prepare for a different future,” said Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius who spoke on Thursday (9 September) at an awards ceremony for green European cities hosted by the previous winner, Lahti, in Finland.

“The answer has to be greener cities – cities with lower pollution, which care more for citizens’ well-being,” he added, saying that going green also means building resilience.

The green European cities event follows a summer marked by floods and wildfires that caused devastation across Europe. Climate change will exacerbate these extreme weather trends, meaning cities will need to adapt to unpredictable weather as well as drastically cut their emissions, Sinkevičius said.

“Climate change is not a matter of political opinion. It is a scientific fact,” said Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin who spoke at the event. “However, we need political decisions in order to make sure that the climate actions are done in a socially just way,” she added.

Adaptation measures include flood prevention measures and renovating buildings to make them more resilient to extreme temperature. The changes required vary across the continent, but recent events have shown that climate change poses a threat to Europe’s cities.

Another way of greening cities is by planting trees. Europe aims to plant three billion trees by 2030 and needs to find the right mix of species in urban areas to give shade, fresh air and shelter to inhabitants, according to Sinkevičius.

“We need to bring back nature to cities. And that’s why the biodiversity strategy calls for European cities to develop urban greening plans by the end of this year,” he said.

Three quarters of Europe’s population lives in cities, so they play a crucial role in both the green transition and in the social transition to net zero emissions. Cities are also crucial to meeting Europe’s climate goals as 80% of environment legislation is implemented in cities, according to the European Commission.

Green leaders

The awards evening on Thursday evening saw Valongo in Portugal and Winterswijk in the Netherlands become joint winners of the Green Leaf City 2022 award, which is given to cities with a population of less than 100,000. Both benefitted from a prize of €200,000.

Meanwhile, Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, was chosen as the European Green Capital 2023 and awarded €600,000. It will take over this title from Grenoble in France, which will be the green capital next year.

Tallinn’s role will be to lead a recently launched network of 19 European cities, aiming to implement sustainability goals on the local level alongside tackling social issues, like poverty, gender inequality and employment.

The city, which has a history of polluting industries, has implemented several schemes, including on noise reduction and water quality. It also has a long-term strategy aiming for a healthy environment and a sustainable use of natural resources by 2030.

Tallinn follows in the footsteps of Lahti, which won the title for 2021. The Estonian capital city aims to be carbon neutral by 2025 and reach a fully circular economy by 2050. It has run a series of schemes, including a personal cap and trade system for residents, to help boost decarbonisation in the city.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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