The future of cities: sustainable or bust

Cities are on the frontline of the climate crisis, writes Rafał Trzaskowski, the Mayor of Warsaw. [Kamil Porembiński / Flickr]

European leaders need to recognise that direct investment in cities is the best way to address the immediate needs of our citizens, whilst also responding to the causes of the climate crisis, writes Rafał Trzaskowski.

Rafał Trzaskowski is the Mayor of Warsaw.

The fate of our European and planetary civilisation, threatened like never before by the climate crisis, depends on the ability of cities to act and transform. The twin challenges of our age, securing a green and just recovery from the COVID crisis and keeping global heating to below the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement, will be decided in our urban centres.

Cities are on the frontline of the climate crisis. Many already face the threat of flooding and rising sea levels. Once in a hundred year storms now hit every few years. As global temperatures rise, deadly heatwaves impact millions. Warsaw, my hometown, like any Polish or European city, is no exception.

Yet cities are not only victims of climate change. They are, sadly, part of the problem too, directly and indirectly responsible for the most significant threat humankind has ever faced. Today, the world’s cities consume 70% of global energy and produce 80% of all greenhouse gases.

To prevent the looming climate disaster, the solutions already being deployed in many cities around the world, must become the new normal for every town and city on earth.

In Warsaw, we practice what we preach. In recent years, we have been gradually yet profoundly transforming the city, to ensure we play our part. Massive investments in zero-emission public transportation – new metro stations, hundreds of new trams and electric buses – will help to reduce the use of private cars. Also, we are phasing out the use of coal stoves by 2023 in residential buildings. Each year, hundreds of homes are connected to the central heating grid, gas system or equipped with renewable energy sources. We have increased the size of green areas in the city; over the coming years, we will plant one million new trees.

We believe that immediate investment in city sustainability not only addresses the existential challenge, it also positively contributes in the short term. Climate action and a just transition will help our cities to recover from the economic and social crisis caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic but also make our cities better and fairer places to live. Global cities are already proving that a Global Green New Deal to tackle both the climate and the health emergency is possible.

However, our resources are stretched. The economic disruption from the global health crisis have only added to the financial strain. Cities across Europe  require new, bold financing schemes to deliver on their vision for a sustainable and equitable future. In 2019, Warsaw, together with fellow signatories of the Pact of Free Cities, called for more European funds to be directly accessible for cities. Such funds would boost investment in new, sustainable transport infrastructure, renewable sources of energy, green spaces, deep retrofit of buildings and power-saving measures. In parallel to the European funds, cities strive to mobilise private financing, in the framework of the Public-Private Partnership.

Ahead of COP26 in Glasgow next year, Europe needs to be ambitious. The European Council should lead the way by formally endorsing a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It is what C40 cities call for, what my colleagues, the Mayors of Budapest, Prague and Bratislava, and myself, have been demanding from our national governments.

Cities are – and should be – at the forefront of climate action. European leaders need to recognise that direct investment in cities, through stimulus packages and recovery funds, is the best way to address the immediate needs of our citizens, whilst also responding to the causes of the climate crisis.

It is particularly important in the Polish context. I believe Warsaw, like other Polish cities, can set an example for the whole country. Together, we can make sure that Poland and all other European countries will embrace the vision of a green and just future, to match the aspirations of its people, particularly the young, setting up an example other world cities and countries will follow.

We should unleash the potential of European cities and turn our entire European community into the climate leader it should be, a champion of inclusive and ambitious climate action.

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